HyperNormalisation — Trump and Assad star in a messy documentary

Adam Curtis’s film takes in Trump, Assad and much besides but lacks coherence

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Weighing in at two hours 46 minutes, HyperNormalisation, made especially for BBC iPlayer, is auteur Adam Curtis’s explanation of the mess the world is in — whatever the world is. There are, we are told, layers of bluff and double bluff, self-dramatising, misperception and role-playing with which we all with varying degrees of awareness comply — even the radicals, lefties and artists, who are often mentioned in tones of particular reproach.

“We have retreated into a more simplified and often completely fake version of the world. But because it is all round us we accept it as normal.” So says Curtis whose résumé of the state we’re in starts in 1975 in two cities — New York and Damascus — typically hinting at some soon-to-be revealed link though emerging as fairly arbitrary. He briskly canters through financial crises, New York’s bankruptcy and the rise of Donald Trump, massacred Palestinians, Hizbollah, corporatism, cyberspace, Lockerbie, Gaddafi, who describes Thatcher as a “harlot” (a moment’s intriguing reflection here), Artificial Intelligence, the Arab Spring, Jane Fonda’s workouts, and beheadings.

The cast is swelled further by brief glimpses of Putin, Patti Smith rhapsodising on graffiti, Timothy Leary lyrical about future Utopia, and a boatload of refugees overturning, an unforgivably casual attention-grabber. In fact many allusions, references and glimpses are thrown in to thicken the mixture, not too relevantly. Russia is occasionally visited with mentions of how it believes in nothing any more — something that many Russia-watchers would dispute. Film references enrich the visuals — an apocalyptic montage of horrified faces from 1990s doomsday movies, the bloody climax of Carrie (enough already!) intercut with our political leaders. “All these stories are woven together,” we are told, to show how today’s “fake world was created”. Come again?

If it all sounds a jumble, it is. The film appears to be made up of existing footage from various sources and one wonders which came first, an all-encompassing thesis or a desire to patch together odds and ends of striking images. Curtis airs enough theories and reveals enough momentous themes for half a dozen compact and concentrated documentaries. As it is, his approach is curiously reminiscent of that of Trump when asked a question: he leaps sideways like a jumping flea to reply to a different question on the same subject. Nothing gets treated in depth, though eventually some jigsaw pieces fit together to make a complete narrative — the tragicomedy of Gaddafi, for instance, alternately the west’s villain, hero, then villain again. The film could be magisterial if it were coherent, cohesive and consistent. Instead its lasting impression is portentous, pretentious and posturing.

It would help if Curtis defined his terms. His lament for the real and authentic leaves one wondering how today’s political chicanery and materialistic ruthlessness differ from any other ages, from the Renaissance to 19th-century imperialism and capitalism. The new factor, presumably, is the technology that keeps tabs on us all. And there is a brazen, shrugging tolerance of patent injustice, indeed illegality, in the world of tax-evading corporatism.

There are shivers, some concerning President-Elect Trump: notably an episode in which the near-broke casino tycoon attempted to best a legendary Japanese gambler. More recently, we watch Trump at a Washington correspondents’ dinner as the speaker makes him the butt of a series of jokes. The future president watches expressionless, nary the flicker of a smile on his face, only the impression of a long memory storing away scores to settle. The film has plenty of striking moments but 166 minutes of overarching paranoia will leave all but Curtis cultists — and there are many — wishing for sharper focus.

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