Monday, 17 October 2016


I first came across Adam Curtis through his classic and definitive work, The Power of Nightmares, a film that exposed the sham of the War on Terror. Since then I made sure to get hold of all his other films. As I result I now consider him to be one of the best political documentary producers in the world. He combines informative commentary with interesting interviews, dry humour, moving imagery, powerful scores and poetic vignettes. His masterpiece is without a doubt The Trap, which he released in 2007. Its iconic tableau is the heartrending expression of the woman sitting in a kitchen during the titles, see the illustration below. That face speaks a thousand words. The Trap is currently available online here: Part 1: Part 2: Part 3: I was very excited when I heard that Adam Curtis was releasing a new film. Unusually this would not be launched on television in a series of episodes and would instead be posted straight to BBC I-Player in a single super-feature cut at 9 PM last night. At the time of writing it can still be watched there: Here's a version on YouTube: All Curtis' documentaries are connected thematically and HyperNormalisation is no exception. In a way it is a sequel to The Trap. Using some unique vintage footage it traces the history of the modern world and how it turned into what Curtis believes is an illusory reality. The tagline for the programme is: "We live in a world where the powerful deceive us. We know they lie. They know we know they lie. They don't care." The story behind this is centred on the tale of two cities; New York and Damascus. It talks about how in New York City in 1975 the entire council went bankrupt and their assets were sold off to the banks. One of the men who redeveloped it was a young Donald Trump (This was strange to see. I always think of Trump as an old man with dyed hair, because he's only achieved international fame recently in his US Presidential campaign, so it was remarkable to see him looking so youthful). At the same time Syria was being tricked by Henry Kissinger into fighting wars they didn't want to fight and the Soviet Union was in a slow but unstoppable economic decline that would lead to its eventual collapse fifteen years later. The way the USSR coped with this was to give people an image through the media of false prosperity and mindless optimism called "hypernormalisation"; and the populace went along with it. They came to a tacit, almost subconscious agreement not to break their collective delusion. This got me thinking about the common skeptic objection to conspiracy theories: "But too many people would have to know about it! Somebody would inevitably speak out!" No, they wouldn't. As the 1980's dawned tensions rose in the Middle East and there were a multitude of wars, terrorist attacks and suicide bombing; the last of which was a new phenomenon. One of the pivotal figures in the faking of the Middle East situation for Western media consumption was Col. Muammar Gaddafi, president of Libya. He was a harsh but popular dictator in a nation which at the time had the highest standard of living in Africa. The media branded him a global terrorist mastermind who was behind various bomb attacks across Europe, including the Lockerbie plane bombing. The evidence pointed towards Syria rather than Libya, but the government didn't want to implicate Syria because it was an ally in the region so they used Libya as a scapegoat. The government call this "perception management". Amazingly... and this was new information for me, Gaddafi played along because it gave him a lot of credibility in the eyes of many people around the world. He was even an honoured guest at one of Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam conferences. In the end, the western states joined in with Gaddafi's deception even deeper by lifting the economic sanctions against Libya provided he confessed to Lockerbie. He agreed and made a false confession. Then in more recent years the situation came full circle when Gaddafi was transformed back into an arch-villain by government propaganda. This was the last instalment in his career path. There was a western-engineered civil war in Libya which led to a coup in which Gaddafi was captured and beaten to death in the streets by a lynch mob. Unbelievably... but perhaps not quite so, the trick worked and the general public did not bat an eyelid. Oceania really is at war with Eastasia.
Then HyperNormalisation takes a very unexpected turn. It brings up the last subject I expected it to, that of UFO's. It gives a brief summary of Mark Pilkington's position as he relates it in his book Mirage Men. I saw the trailer for HyperNormalisation first on John Lundberg's Twitter feed so that would explain it. Lundberg is co-director of the documentary film based on the book. There is a clip from one of the interviews with Richard Doty included. I disagree with the premise therein totally and explain so in more detail in my review of Mirage Men, see: Through the 1980's and 90's technology increased at the same time people were becoming more and more despondent about politics. It seemed that no matter what we did, nothing changed. The rising sophistication of computers allowed us to enter virtual worlds, "cyberspace" as it was called. Artificial intelligence emerged and there was even a program called "ELIZA" that could hold conversations with you. There was a sense of nihilism and dread for the future. In the late 1990's a series of movies depicting global disaster became box office hits like Independence Day and Deep Impact. The story of HyperNormalisation ends in the early 2000's, which is one of the reasons why I suspect the film was heavily edited, probably quite late on in post-production. There is an obtrusive change of pace near the end; very different to Curtis' usual style which is quite good at the smooth and professional denouement. Did the film contain an additional section that was cut out? Maybe something about post-war Iraq and the creation of the Islamic State?... Hmm. HyperNormalisation really struck a chord with me. I've said for some time how people have given up asking for politicians to be truthful and instead just seek out those who tell the best lies. The goal is to allow oneself to be persuaded, not informed. As Curtis said, this is easier than analyzing the real complexities of reality. He says the internet has become the latest means of simply reflecting you back at yourself. I don't think this is invariably the case, but it is easy to get trapped inside what he calls "cyberspace bubbles" where internet search algorithms first show you what they expect you to want. Completely automatic systems are surprisingly good at getting a handle on you and I've noticed this myself, see: It is possible to search for other things outside your bubble, or course, but it takes additional effort. Most people have given up on striving for the new; a lot of them accept that their life has no purpose. Politicians have merely become maintainers and managers of a status quo, rather than visionaries and revolutionaries. Indeed, they are positively terrified of change; look at Brexit, see: One thing I think Curtis gets wrong is that all this is unintentional; merely a product of weakness and incompetence. No, I think it is deliberate. They have worked very hard, using the same psychological tricks Curtis describes in Century of the Self, see:, to build a society in which we do not care if we are lied to. As he says in his previous film Bitter Lake, see:, "Increasingly we live in a world where nothing makes sense. Events come and go like waves of a fever leaving us confused and uncertain. Those in power tell stories to help us make sense of the complexity of reality, but those stories are increasingly unconvincing and hollow... to which the only response is 'oh dear!'." This is not by accident; it is by cold and expert design. HyperNormalisation is a film that I feel was meant to say more than it does. It is informative, yet not as complete or original as Curtis' other works. It lacks the glossy, compact and all-encompassing logic of The Trap. It is well worth watching and I recommend it; but I think it makes sense only if you also watch Curtis' back catalogue; see the links I've provided. This may not be Curtis' fault; as I said, I suspect that some last minute holes were chopped in the product as part of his broadcast negotiations at the BBC. Hopefully a "director's cut" will emerge some day soon.  


GingerSensation said...

Thanks for this. I too very much enjoyed the Power Of Nightmares but was disappointed but not surprised by the omissions in this film. The well established role Western intelligence agencies was skimmed very lightly. The CIA's use Mujahideen in Afghanistan is conveniently, for the narrative of this file, completely ignored. I find the accusation that Syria was behind Al-Qaeda in Iraq, completely laughable. I don't think it was Syria that sent mercenaries into Iraq and assassinated surgeons, doctors and professors. There was a section on the use of LSD and again, the well established role of the CIA (the even had a song writer for the Grateful Dead, FFS) in fostering this revolution, isn't mentioned.

There were interesting parts of course; the sections on Colonel Gaddafi were interesting, the highlight for me was David Frost roundtable discussion. As you probably know, Frost has long been accused of being an MI6 asset, and here he is used to rehabilitate Gaddafi in line with western policy.

So all in all I found this to be a rather limited hangout.

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

Me too, GS. I was disappointed by the superficial discussion of the UFO issue as well. There are longer documentaries about Timothy Leary and his role in the organized counter culture.