FilmWatch Weekly: “HyperNormalisation” is the first essential film of the Trump Era

The latest film by British documentarian Adam Curtis illuminates the conditions that allowed Trump's rise

The British documentary maker Adam Curtis has made a career out of mining the underside of modern history, revealing political connections that weave idiosyncratically together to create a fascinating, if generally foreboding, vision of the world. His latest film, “HyperNormalisation,” which premiered online through the BBC last month, is perhaps his most prescient and terrifying yet. It’s the first essential documentary of the Trump Era.

His two best-known films to American viewers are “The Power of Nightmares” and “The Century of the Self,” and even they have received scant stateside attention. The former traces the parallel growth of radical Islamism (as founded by Sayyid Qutb) and the American neo-conservative movement (as founded by Leo Strauss) in the decades leading up to the 9/11 attacks. The latter explains how the public relations industry (as founded by Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays) and the manipulation of mass opinion have been utilized as agents of subtle control over the populations of consumerist Western democracies.

A collage of images from Adam Curtis' documentary "Hypernormalisation."

A collage of images from Adam Curtis’ documentary “Hypernormalisation.”

Heady stuff, right? But Curtis’ films are addictively watchable. He’s a master at raiding the BBC’s almost Borgesian video archives, splicing together footage in masterful montages that would make Lev Kuleshov proud. These visual quilts are then embroidered with scores that alternate between ominous, trancelike tracks and occasional snippets of pop songs. The final, essential component is Curtis’ narration, his foreboding revelations leavened by dollops of dry, dark wit.

“HyperNormalisation” aims to demonstrate how Western democracies (specifically, the U.S. and Britain) essentially surrendered their desire to create a better world and opted instead to create what Curtis calls a “fake reality” where risks could be managed and stability maintained. As his prime example of this, he cites the evolving relationships with the leaders of Syria and Libya since the 1970s. Patti Smith, Henry Kissinger, and Jane Fonda show up, as does Grateful Dead lyricist-turned-cyberspace prophet John Perry Barlow.

The tragic hero of the piece, though, is Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the tinpot Libyan dictator who became America’s chosen Middle Eastern bogeyman after it became apparent that dealing with Syria, Iran, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was simply too complicated and intimidating. Curtis posits that several acts of terrorism in the 1980s, including the Lockerbie airline bombing, were blamed on Libya despite evidence that Assad’s Syria was behind them.

Then, after 9/11, Gaddafi’s image was revamped when he announced that Libya was giving up all efforts toward creating weapons of mass destruction. But when the Arab Spring revolts spread to Libya, Gaddafi once again became, or was depicted as, an unstable tyrant. Throughout the process, Gaddafi played along for psychological and political reasons of his own, in much the same way Saddam Hussein did. 

Curtis’ wide-ranging method also incorporates the rise and spread of the tactic of suicide bombing, which of course reached its apocalyptic apotheosis (at least so far) on September 11, 2001. He also, in the final sections of “HyperNormalisation,” examines the way that Vladimir Putin and his chief political aide, Vladislav Surkov, took the concept of politics as theater to a whole new level. The logical conclusion to all this is, of course, the ascendancy of Donald Trump.

Trump makes a few cameos throughout “HyperNormalistion,” as a prime force in the transformation of New York City into a “city for the rich,” and as a player in the strange story of Japanese gambler Akio Kashiwagi. The film culminates, though, with his nomination as the Republican candidate for president and his personification of the post-factual world. The film debuted three weeks before the American election, but you get the sense Curtis was one of the few people who weren’t surprised a bit by his surprise victory.

For various reasons, including rights issues and the cowardice of American television networks, Curtis’ films have never received commercial release in the U.S. However, most, if not all, of them, are available online, if you know where to look. Curtis himself doesn’t seem to mind this alternate, “gray-market” method of distribution, but I’m still hesitant to post direct links here. Use your Googling skills and seek them out.

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