I have come late to the work of documentarist Adam Curtis. I had registered a year or so ago his The Century of the Self (2002) which told the story (as Curtis puts it) of “how those in power have used Freud's theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy"; and shows how the man who effectively invented the PR industry which then went on to take over the machinery of state propaganda……. was Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays.
And his documentary Bitter Lake (2015) about the role of Saudi Arabia in post-war politics was a mind-blowing piece which brought forth this post earlier this year with its acknowledgment that -
Good documentaries require a rare combination - knowledge of the subject, experience of filming, appropriate selection and editing of text, images and music, and appreciation of how to fit them together
His latest (3 hour) production - Hypernormalisation - hit our screens last month – with Curtis himself setting the scene in his blog thus -
We live in a time of great uncertainty and confusion. Events keep happening that seem inexplicable and out of control. Donald Trump, Brexit, the War in Syria, the endless migrant crisis, random bomb attacks. And those who are supposed to be in power are paralysed - they have no idea what to do.
This film is the epic story of how we got to this strange place. It explains not only why these chaotic events are happening - but also why we, and our politicians, cannot understand them.It shows that what has happened is that all of us in the West - not just the politicians and the journalists and the experts, but we ourselves - have retreated into a simplified, and often completely fake version of the world.
But because it is all around us we accept it as normal. HyperNormalisation is a giant narrative spanning forty years, with an extraordinary cast of characters. They include the Assad dynasty, Donald Trump, Henry Kissinger, Patti Smith, the early performance artists in New York, President Putin, intelligent machines, Japanese gangsters, suicide bombers - and the extraordinary untold story of the rise, fall, rise again, and finally the assassination of Colonel Gaddafi.
All these stories are woven together to show how today’s fake and hollow world was created. Part of it was done by those in power - politicians, financiers and technological utopians. Rather than face up to the real complexities of the world, they retreated. And instead constructed a simpler version of the world in order to hang onto power.
And it wasn’t just those in power. This strange world was built by all of us. We all went along with it because the simplicity was reassuring. And that included the left and the radicals who thought they were attacking the system.
The film shows how they too retreated into this make-believe world - which is why their opposition today has no effect, and nothing ever changes. But there is another world outside. And the film shows dramatically how it is beginning to pierce through into our simplified bubble. Forces that politicians tried to forget and bury forty years ago - that were then left to fester and mutate - but which are now turning on us with a vengeful fury.
Curtis is not to everyone’s taste – with some annoyance being expressed at the randomness of his narratives - which do jump around in a rather tantalizing if not conspiratorial way….with music and odd image clips (from BBC Archives). Indeed there is a short mocking video here which does capture his style….. .
But I personally like the way he tries to capture recent intellectual history – and, in particular, builds bridges across the huge abysses that increasingly separate the social science disciplines…. We need a lot more of this….
Close readers of this blog may have noticed that it has occasionally mentioned the fascinating period of American intellectual history in the 2 decades after the second world war whose personalities and books in the late 50s and early 60s helped shape my own thinking people like JK Galbraith, James Buchanan, Ivan Illich…
An Adam Curtis Resource
The google search I did for articles and interviews about his work unearthed quite a few gems – my favourite being this long interview with him, the second of a series (the first being a fascinating account of how he came to stumble on his particular type of documentary)
"all watched over by machines"….https://vimeo.com/groups/96331/videos/80799353
Update; just come across this reference to the US documentarist Ken Burns - who recently put an Netflix a documentary about the Vietnam War which is more than 100 hours of viewing!