We live in TV heaven. ‘Friends’ loops endlessly on terrestrial channels, and even the most obscure 70s and 80s children’s shows are finding new audiences via YouTube. But documentaries like ‘HyperNormalisation’ are less likely to enjoy an extended afterlife. Have you tried to view John Berger’s ‘Ways Of Seeing’ or Jonathan Miller’s ‘The Body In Question’? These were state-of-the-art productions, yet now they exert their influence only indirectly, via the memories of their original viewers or spin-off publications.
Longevity and HyperNormalisation
Adam Curtis seems to have been preoccupied with issues of longevity when he made ‘HyperNormalisation’, the latest in his long line of provocative and fascinating films. So what is hypernormalisation? Well, firstly, hypernormalisation wasn’t conventionally released on terrestrial TV but instead published directly to the servers of the BBC iPlayer website, the film-maker having apparently extracted a promise that it would never be taken down. This privileged treatment lends the production a certain sprinkling of pixie dust, well-suited to its status as a subtle piece of meta-commentary in a dumbed-down media landscape — and it’s doubly appropriate given Curtis’ new focus on online culture.
That subject area may be new, but those who’ve seen previous Curtis outings will know what to expect. The complex and persuasive argument presented in voiceover? Check! How-we-live-now scene setting and jaw-dropping archive footage? Check! The best ageing hipster soundtrack this side of Michael Mann? Yep! Themes explored this time out include our century’s failures of political will, the collapse of established concepts of work in the face of economic change, and the ways that social media has fragmented our political discourse. Along the way, Curtis takes sideswipes at specific geopolitical issues, with Putin’s state apparatus and two decades of Western involvement in Libya both getting a thorough kicking.
Those sideswipes are what makes Curtis so interesting. It’s as if polemic keeps breaking through, despite his efforts to produce a cool, distanced analysis. It’s also why the commentators who have suggested a debt to Reggio’s ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ are wide of the mark. The similarities are undeniable. However, where Reggio expected his urban cinematography to speak for itself, Curtis just can’t stop himself naming names.
There’s another, clearer influence which has gone unremarked, likely because of the cultural amnesia mentioned above. James Burke’s magnum opus, the groundbreaking ‘Connections’, last aired in the late 70s. The series made use of every televisual trick in the book to show how seemingly unrelated scientific and technical innovations cross-fertilized across national and cultural boundaries, without respect for creeds or persons. Burke’s complex narrative webs would have looked scattershot in print, but on-screen they carried both weight and conviction. Curtis, already a BBC researcher at the time of the original broadcasts, was surely watching and learning.
The silence of critics
It’s a shame that Curtis’ translation of the methods of ‘Connections’ to the realm of media politics seems to have omitted Burke’s finely-tuned sense of irony. Particularly since it did such an excellent job of deflecting criticism. Almost no-one bothered to take issue with ‘Connections’, and the few objections raised to it seemed nostalgic. These were calls for a return to the Lives of Great Men, disguised as mistrust of Burke’s flip, cynical, media-savvy storytelling. But critical responses to Curtis have been surprisingly muted, too. Maybe, the commentators realized that any work displaying this degree of complexity and self-awareness is too precious to destroy.
Watch Live TV
TVMucho subscribers who enjoy watching a filmmaker at the top of his game should watch HyperNormalisation online. It’s one more of the gems of British television that can be enjoyed by fans of UK TV abroad. Watch the best TV shows online on all your devices Live or on 7 days of Catch Up.