The movie of the year did not have a theatrical release. It wasn’t even on tv. It was a webcast. Adam Curtis’s Hypernormalizaion is essential viewing this year. The film of the year had to be a documentary. In fact, there is something a little … off about even tying to see a narrative film after November 8th this year. What is the point of going into fiction when it is reality itself that we should be seeking to get to in this post-truth era?
I’ve been a big fan of Curtis for years. The Power of Nightmares, The Century of the Self and It Felt Like a Kiss are some of my favorite movies ever. Discovering him is like discovering a filmmaker on the level of Kubrick, except, of course, Curtis only does non-fiction. And curiously, he doesn’t see himself as an artist, but a journalist. Whatever he wants to call himself is fine by me.
Hypernomalization is a very long movie, topping out at over two and a half hours. You kind of have to watch it over a few settings because so much happens that you have to stop occasionally and absorb it all. It’s a somewhat rambling work for Curtis, but the film ties a few seemingly discrete world happenings together – including Syria, Brexit and Trump. It compares the withering power of global capitalism and the rise of reactionary politics across the globe. The title, Hypernormalization, refers to the cultural sense that we conduct life within this system as though it were still working despite underlying anxieties that its rotting from within. So we live in a kind of simulation, aided by decrepit ideologies and virtual worlds in cyberspace, which have the unintended consequence of keeping us passive consumers within the system.
One method Curtis keeps returning to is discussing the social and political ideas, and following the consequences of these ideas. The ideas of power typically turn back on their originators, being dashed by fate and unforeseen consequences. The freedom that was promised by neoliberal economics and its global capitalism, ended up being cornered by its own greed, power and corruption. And the system itself trapped everyone because the system attempted to contain its own malcontents and dissension.
The coup de grace of the film comes after a carefully built two hours weaving these threads together. It’s about how powerful elites in Russia used perception management, and created their own “citizens groups” to give the Russian empire the aura that it is a democratic society. The particular case of Vladislav Surkov is instructive. He was a theater guy and business maven who became a kind of propogandist and Rasputin for Putin. He took countercultural techniques like culture jamming and flashmobs and turned them into simulations of discontent. And then, instead of keeping this a secret, was open about it. Reality, for the Russians, was something that also could be managed. This, Curtis alleges, is instructional in the new American politics and the rise of post-truthism in the age of Trump. This is a rather concrete thing as well, as it has now been confirmed by the CIA that the Russian government was responsible for the Clinton email hacks. It’s instructive to look to Russia as a fully hacked state of total perception management.
How long can this total management last? Curtis has shown that in the past, the ideas of powerful elites have broken down due to miscalculations, over-reach, and the commonplace errors of garden variety human sin. The point being, that a managed democracy invariably runs into failure. The trouble is that we have failed to come up with a system to replace what has become an enormously powerful plutocratic stronghold. It seems to me that while capitalism reaches its terminus point, it would reason that there will be a breaking point. Who will pay when the bough breaks is yet to be seen in the balance of history. What is clear is this – we must find a new way to live.