Talking Like Adam Curtis

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I can say that I have sat through the whole of HyperNormalisation. It is arduous viewing, putting it kindly. It’s extremely rich, some might say decadent. If Bitter Lake was a cornerstone, I suspect this film is the excess that followed from it. Everything about it is overdone. If you’ve followed Adam Curtis closely, you’ll note that the footage carries with it his obsessions from recent years. He was writing about Iran, Syria and Libya on his blog back going back five years.

For more 15 years or more, Adam Curtis has been able to captivate mainstream audiences with his innovative style of film making. His work encapsulates some of the major subjects of our time: from the ‘war on terror’ to the selfish gene. Curtis connects the dots with a moving collage of archive footage. He guides us through a winding narrative with his impeccable BBC accent. It is not for the escapist viewer, that’s for sure.

An overshared Curtis spoof describes his work as the result of a “drunken, late night Wikipedia binge“. It’s not wrong. The links between various subjects often seem tenuous. It’s not immediately obvious how gene theory and Congolese mineral wars are linked together. Naturally, Curtis simplifies for the sake of good storytelling. But this is not to say his work is disingenuous. All narratives are carved out of the chaos of everyday life to help make sense of things.

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Too many people assume HyperNormalisation should be like any other documentary. As if the conservative formula of neat interviews, impartial narration and the use of archive footage to fill the gaps, is enough. People honestly believe the point is just to deliver the facts. Well, sometimes the facts are not enough. Innovation and partiality are not just necessary, but worthy of praise in an age of stultified media projects.

Of course, the empirically-minded herd would dismiss Curtis as “pretentious”. In this highly conservative view, we just need ‘the facts’ and no fancy pyrotechnics – just a series of interviews and a necessary amount of archive footage. For such people, Curtis is just wasting our time with ready-made conclusions. Others would accuse him of conspiracy-mongering. This is either out of a dimwitted fascination for the world as it is, or something more cynical.

Neoconservative Douglas Murray alleges that Curtis claimed al-Qaeda does not exist in The Power of Nightmares (2004). This is a vulgar misreading of the film. It’s also intentionally ignorant. Murray wants to avoid the film’s central argument that the security services and the government have an interest in the threat of terrorism, both real and perceived. In the absence of Cold War ideological differences, Curtis argues, the politics of fear has taken over.

The Power of Nightmares was the first series I watched. It began as a history of neoconservatism and libertarianism, however, Curtis decided to shift gears halfway through. The new focus would be radical Islamism and the influence of Sayyid Qutb, contrasted with the rise of the neocons from the lectures of Leo Strauss. The Trap would take far more liberties in its portrayal of negative and positive freedom. As if the mass uprisings against French rule in Algeria and the Shah in Iran were carried out by the readers of Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon.

What’s lacking is a sense of material forces and how they shape history. In this regard, Curtis falls into the same traps as the rest of the Oxbridge-educated liberals at the BBC. He does not see history through the Marxist prism of class struggle. Instead, Curtis sees history in terms of ideas. His work serves as a genealogy chasing ideas through vast winding labyrinths. It’s this form which separates and distinguishes Adam Curtis from other documentarians.

The collage-like style is not unique to Curtis. I suspect you can excavate a rhizome between the cut-up method and this style of film making. After all the method was popularised by the writer William Burroughs – though it goes back to Brion Gysin and Tristan Tzara – and its influence runs through the avant-garde to pop culture. No doubt Curtis knows the music scene well enough to have drawn on the Burroughsian influence found in punk rock and industrial music.

Curtis takes the cut-up method and applies to documentary film. HyperNormalisation is the epitome of this approach. It stands as a winding collage of different tales. It has the feel of an art-house film in many ways. It is vulnerable to satire in the same way Continental philosophy and free-verse poetry are open to mockery. Laugh at your own peril, I say to my comrades on the left. You should never ask for films to be more boring and conventional.

About Joshua White

a writer and journalist living in the UK where he works as Africa editor and researcher for the World Weekly. White is a philosophy graduate, specialising in political thought, and maintained a blog for several years. His main focus is national and international politics having written on subjects as seemingly far apart as US elections, Russian nationalism and the state of modern Britain.
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