Watching HyperNormalisation by Adam Curtis left me with more questions than answers. Curtis presents as a documentary filmmaker. But the film showcases plenty of unexplained and unidentified imagery. Some of it violent and confronting, sure to draw an emotional response from the viewer.
The film’s blurb on the ThoughtMaybe website says HyperNormalisation, “wades through the culmination of forces that have driven this culture into mass uncertainty, confusion, spectacle and simulation” and “weaves these historical narratives back together to show how today’s fake and hollow world was created and is sustained.”
“This shows that a new kind of resistance must be imagined and actioned, as well as an unprecedented reawakening in a time where it matters like never before.”
But the film is far from a call to arms.
If anything, it leaves the viewer feeling lost and suffocating in a reality that can’t be trusted – and so consequently – can’t be “actioned.” As a friend who recommended HyperNormalisation to me said after watching them film he felt “as helpless a cork floating on the surface of the sea.”
Before the film introduces the Russian master of charade, Vladislav Surkov, the themes of the film had already reminded me of his work. At every turn the imagery is compelling. Artistic. Mysterious. Segment after segment points the viewer’s attention away to the next spectacle. All of it threaded together with a dismayed, electronic soundtrack.
Among the subjects taken up in the film, many share a characteristic – they were matters of importance to Russia or that Russia has influence over. Donald Trump, Brexit, the War in Syria, mass immigration and bomb attacks in the West.
The plotline of the Assad family really stood out. FYI, Russia has supported the Assad son and father. But the story of Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, is opened-ended. He only wanted peace for the Palestinians – and now all these years later his son (humanised in HyperNormalisation as a computer geek who loves the 70s band ELO) now presides over the death of almost half a million Syrians. (The film doesn’t make that point.)
Even the broad arc of the HyperNormalisation, the West’s entry into a mysterious new phase of helplessness and despair, are told in the context of the Soviet Union’s collapse. It happened to Russia – so it will inevitably happen to the West.
The film focused on the fate of Muammar Gaddafi (a sore spot for Russians when considering Hillary Clinton’s time as Secretary of State) while ignoring a lot of other strange things afoot in this world today, everything from the Zika Virus, the mysterious fall in economic productivity, a surge of prescription drug deaths, targeted individuals, clown sightings, and Elon Musk’s apocalyptic dream to get us to Mars.
By the end of the film I didn’t feel the scales falling from eyes as much as being bolted on.
Intrinsic in liberal democracies is the belief that any problem that can be measured and understood can be addressed though a legitimate government working on behalf of the public.
Watching this film left me with the sense that, well, to borrow a book title: nothing was true and everything was possible. And there is something fundamentally dishonest about a documentary filmmaker who sees himself as a journalist relying on UFO footage to explain the state of the world.
There are concrete problems to face that go largely unaddressed: the impact of machines on employment, the shift from a manufacturing economy to a service based one, the way the internet is changing how we regard each other, long-term demographic shifts affecting Western democracies. Not much of this was taken up in the documentary.
HyperNormalisation instead brings to mind another cohesive world view contained in the work of another talented British filmmaker.
In the 1984 film Repo Man, Alex Cox depicted a dystopian version of a Ronald Reagan’s America. The film’s theme was about nuclear war “and the demented society that contemplated the possibility thereof.” It involved UFOs, too.
Cox explained: “[Repossessing] people’s cars and hating alien ideologies were only the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg itself was the maniac culture which had elected so-called ‘leaders’ named Reagan and Thatcher, who were prepared to sacrifice everything — all life on earth — to a gamble based on the longevity of the Soviet military, and the whims of their corporate masters.”
Sounds pretty insane.
In one scene, the angry young punk, Otto, played by Emilio Estevez, is having a talk with a mechanic, Miller, about what’s really going on.
In the disjointed poetry that is the film, the mechanic prattles on about metaphysical conspiracy theories to a clearly bored Otto, who asks Miller if he used to do “a lot of acid in the hippie days.” Miller explains the origin of humanity, coming after a time when “there was no people. Where did all these people come from, Miller asks? They came from the future. And where did they disappear to? The past, ventures Otto. “That’s right,” says Miller “and how did they get there?”
“How the fuck do I know?” Otto replies.
“Flying saucers. Which are really? Yeah you got it. Time machines.”
But Otto clearly regards Miller as a burn-out.
HyperNomalisation is film of a similar vein to the dialogue in Repo Man: a far-fetched ramble that is not only uninstructive, it’s an insult to the notion of documentary truth telling. Just watching it makes you understand less about the real problems facing the world. All the while the viewer is urged to believe the set of conclusions – against their own better judgement.