Last year, Adam Curtis delivered Black Mirror directly into the nation’s eyeballs on BBC iPlayer. It was experimental, challenging, ambitious filmmaking. Now, he’s back with HyperNormalisation, an equally epic piece of TV that proves more accessible than his last work, but no less provocative. If Black Mirror was mind-blowing, HyperNormalisation is brain-expanding.
In the time between the two, the world has changed into something almost unrecognisable. Brexit has happened and Donald Trump is weirdly close to reaching the White House. Even in our living rooms, BBC Three has morphed into an online channel. But the latter is the key to the success of Curtis’ latest work: the BBC’s maturing digital platform has become the natural home for Curtis’ documentaries. “More accessible”, you see, is a relative term (as is the loosely-applied label “documentary”); HyperNormalisation sees the director as deliberately obfuscatory as ever, jumping from one idea to the next with that signature, steam-of-consciousness style. We see the rise of Wall Street’s power in the 1970s. We see the collapse of the Soviet Union. And we also see Jane Fonda in an exercise video.
While Black Mirror sought to dissect the modern war on terror by contextualising it within the historical events of the 1970s and 1980s, HyperNormalisation tries the same thing to explain how the world today has stopped making sense. The result is surprisingly linear, as he moves chronologically from the power-plays of Western forces abroad decades ago to modern Syria and Trump’s election campaign.
He finds his story along the way: the idea that politics has turned into pantomime, that people such as Putin’s advisor, Vladislav Surkov, deliberately dress things up as theatrically as possible to make people uncertain about what politicians are really doing. Suddenly, the mutual admiration that seems to exist between Putin and Donald Trump makes sense – Trump, here, is highlighted as flip-flopping from one extreme view to another, intentionally making it impossible for old-school politics, based on concrete ideas and policy, to challenge him.
It’s in these brief moments that you have flashes of understanding – an experience that Curtis has developed into an art form. His calm, authoritative narration and endless juxtaposition of pop culture and fact make it almost impossible to grasp what he’s getting at, but exhilarating when you do.
You’re so distracted by this hypnotic mode of presentation that it can be easy to overlook the skill behind it; his arguments are always guilty of bias and over-simplification (he blithely swipes out at the banks and the left-wing movements for failing to oppose them without any detail), but in an age where TV documentaries can be so familiar and conventional, it’s a joy to see someone so boldly piece together their own case. The raw footage of bombs exploding right next to the camera is shocking; the montage of disaster movies from before 9/11 is both disturbing and amusing; the insight into Gaddafi and Middle-Eastern political history is genuinely intriguing. And none of it has a talking head in sight.
The result, clocking in at almost three hours, is less like watching a TV show and more like scrolling through a Wikipedia page out of order; HyperNormalisation is a film that’s almost designed to watched with Google open on your phone. And while that can be frustrating, it suits its home on BBC iPlayer, where things can be rewound for clarification or paused for brain fatigue and a bit of surfing.
And so Curtis’ ultimate theory, which emerges at the book-ends of his documentary, proves smartly apt – it’s not the real world that doesn’t make sense, he suggests, but that the ones shocked by it are living in unreal world, distracted by the me-culture of YouTube videos and the world wide web. It’s essentially two hours and 45 minutes to define the word “echo chamber”, but there’s a thrill to someone so confidently making us step back and consider the idea, and the state of the modern world, in detail.
It helps, perhaps, to go in knowing what to expect: this three-hour movie does not contain the answer to the world’s questions and not does it claim to; there isn’t one. There’s just chaos and puppets and manipulation. HyperNormalisation is another narrative, another perspective, to put on the pile. But there’s power and provocative images behind each chapter of Adam Curtis’ subjective story. And, no matter how bamboozled or bothered you might get by watching HyperNormalisation, this is a must-see, partly for its thought-provoking subject and partly for the unique experience itself. There’s no one else out there who does documentaries like this, despite it sometimes feeling like he’s preaching to the converted; perhaps even Adam Curtis can’t escape that echo chamber.
HyperNormalisation is available to watch on BBC iPlayer for over a year.