A narrative through which the post-1970s world can be understood involves Niels Henrik David Bohr, the Danish physicist who laid the foundation for the fields of atomic structure and quantum theory. Bohr won the Nobel Prize in 1922 and is without a doubt one of the renowned intellects of the 20th century. The narrative goes as follows:
Surprised upon viewing a horseshoe sitting next to the door of Bohr’s country home, a shocked colleague of Bohr’s exclaimed that there was no scientific basis for the superstitious belief that horseshoes could serve as a guard against evil spirits. Bohr immediately shot back “I don’t believe in it either. I have it there because I was told that it works even when one doesn’t believe in it.”
In many ways, Bohr’s statements reflect our world. Nobody seems to take democracy or justice seriously, but we continue to participate in these systems despite being aware of their ingrained corruption and limitations. Mainstream portrayals of what the pillars of Western civilization are applied to an old world that existed half a century ago, but they are continually promoted as an unquestioned set of beliefs. Just as Bohr did, we believe in them even if we don’t understand why. We assume that these systems will work - even if we cannot see how. The dominant ideologies of our age are non-transparent. The condition of paralyzing complexity we all live in is what Adam Curtis seeks to depict in his documentary "Hypernormalization."
The title of Curtis’ film, Hypernormalization, is taken from Alexei Yurchak’s 2006 book Everything Was Forever, Until It was No More: The Last Soviet Generation, an expose of the contradictions between the way things were supposed to be and the way things were in the Eastern Bloc. Yurchak uses the term “Hypernormalization” to describe a point at which everyone in Soviet society knew the system was failing, but no one could think of any alternative that existed beyond communism, the status quo that had existed for over 60 years.
Politicians, oligarchs and citizens alike were all resigned to accepting and maintaining a pretense of a well-oiled, functioning society. As the contradictions and failings of Soviet-era communism became ever more visible, the delusion that everyone lived under became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the ‘fakeness’ eventually became a reality – a condition of hypernormalization was born. It was impossible to act in opposition to the system or be outside of it, as no one knew reality from constructed fiction. This condition where reality and fiction are impossible to separate from one another is applied to the context of Western modernity and is the axis upon which Curtis’ film rests.
It was impossible to act in opposition to the system or be outside of it, as no one knew reality from constructed fiction.
Curtis’ film begins in New York in 1975 discussing the origins of Tom Wolfe’s “Me” era and closes with the candidacy of Donald Trump, and it covers everything from UFO’s to middle eastern theocracy to intricate conspiracy theories.
The sprawling film is purposefully expansive, without any obvious central, singular theme or narrative. If one point is drawn through Hypernormalization, it is the rise of ‘perception management’ across the world, be it through computers, corporations, governments, the Internet, or political theory.
Modern society was too confusing and complicated for the average citizen to understand, and the powerful individuals and institutions across the world simply began to construct a simpler version of the world to hang onto their power. Curtis' films all center around power and how it operates at all levels in the social body, and Hypernormalization is his magnum opus.
Adam Curtis has always been attached, either directly or tangentially, to the BBC, and he made Hypernormalization for BBC’s iPlayer on a minuscule budget. The film is a piece of audio-visual art above all else, and the idea is to tell dramatic stories within the context of a world of hypernormalization that is designed to distract people from the complexity of reality.
The sprawling film is purposefully expansive, without any obvious central, singular theme or narrative.
There are no original images from the film, as the entire 2 hour and 46 minute runtime is made up of Curtis’ curation of the over 40 years of BBC archives, juxtaposed with a score that consists of everything from ambient sounds of Brian Eno to vintage pop hits from various eras.
Much of Curtis’ style is derived from American author and war correspondent John Dos Passos. He specifically cites a trio of novels Dos Passos published in the early 30s, stating, "You can trace back everything I do to that novel because it's all about grand history, individual experience, their relationship. And also collages quotes from newsreels, cinema, newspapers. And it's about a collage of history as well. That's where I get it all from."
His diverse and often surreal soundtracks are a conscious rejection of any one specific atmospheric effect or cohesive narrative. Perhaps the best way to describe the style of Hypernormalization is calling it a striking portrayal of the exercise of power across the globe.
Whether the stories and narratives that Curtis tries to weave together are true or not is beside the point – to Curtis, reality is just something to be played with, both within his film and in the world as a whole. He stated in an interview “most journalism does not acknowledge that people live at least as much in their heads as they do in the world.”
His dreamlike narrative superimposes a structure on seemingly unconnected events. This form is meant to shift between how our nightmares and fantasies play out in our heads. Presenting information in this way fills a void that Curtis believes exists in modern journalism. As a society, we can often lack dramatic stories that help us understand our digitized and globalized world.
The brilliance of Curtis’ impressionistic form is in its reflexivity – the techniques that he uses to convey his narrative mimic the very absurdity they depict. Early on in the film, Curtis draws our attention to Henry Kissinger’s purposefully deceptive political philosophy of ‘constructive ambiguity’ that he used to drive out Assad in Syria and ensure America’s geopolitical status in the region remained stable.
‘Constructive ambiguity’ refers to the use of ambiguous language on sensitive and important geopolitical strategy. Curtis’ film mirrors this technique purposefully, as his seemingly random array of footage and audio merge in such a way to force the viewer to create their own maps of meaning within the film.
Curtis is not so much interested in getting in your head and delivering a concrete, identifiable message, as much as he is interested in simply getting inside of your head. The abstract connections that the viewer is forced to make between disparate uses of audio and visual is manufactured and intentional.
Graphic, bloodstained aftermaths of violence and deaths of militants are freely interspersed amongst bizarre footage of the minutiae of off-duty politicians (Ghaddafi combing his hair is a true highlight of the film), and this juxtaposition poignantly illustrates the absurdity of modernity. Curtis leaves it to the viewer to decide what drives, defines, limits, and ends this absurdity.
Curtis' films are highly polarizing, and his attempt to explain various iterations of power through his films are often attacked as being disingenuous, dishonest, and intellectually arrogant. These critiques are not without merit, but there is a reason Curtis has such a prominent voice in documentary filmmaking. He is a truly unique filmmaker who has a vision for how to critique power, specifically the power of ideas.
Michel Houellebecq’s Prix de Goncourt winning novel, The Map and the Territory centers around Jed Martin, a fictional artist as famous as the likes of Koons and Hirst.
Martin breaks into the art world with a photo series of Michelin maps that represent the French landscape. The only caption given to any of his photos is “THE MAP IS MORE INTERESTING THAN THE TERRITORY,” which is supposed to serve as a commentary on the relationship between reality and art.
As Houllebecq’s character suggests and Adam Curtis clearly believes, perhaps the representations of the world we create are more compelling than the world itself, and reality itself.
Recommended For You