And then the Strangest Thing Happened

There is nothing in HyperNormalisation Adam Curtis has not done before, except that his pace is increasingly relaxed, with lengthy, drifting, wordless sound/image juxtapositions that feel closer to contemporary “artists’ film” than anything on television. You could read this languor generously, as a conscious new direction in his work. Or it could simply be the sign of burgeoning self-indulgence, the kind of thing cult figures often become susceptible to.

What is Adam Curtis doing?

Still from The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom.

When Adam Curtis’s new documentary HyperNormalisation premiered on the BBC’s online iPlayer service last fall, the journalist Chris Applegate compiled an Adam Curtis Bingo card that circulated widely on Twitter and Facebook. The card contained many of the tropes that have become extremely familiar in the documentary filmmaker’s work over the last twenty years. With this simple game, you could have a drink whenever Curtis’s distinctive, slightly harsh Received Pronunciation narration—what used to be called BBC English—would begin with “this is the story of . . .” or “but one man . . .”; when he would assert that so-and-so “was convinced that . . .” over “electronic bleeps and bloops” and footage that would include “grainy film of oil sheiks” or “footage of old-timey computers and reel-to-reel tapes.” “A disturbing vision of humanity” would be outlined while a “Burial track plays,” and a montage of “’80s Russian punk musicians” and “people in the ’50s or ’60s dancing” would accompany a story about a group of men whose “aim was to create a new world, one which . . .” “Aerial footage of a city at night” would suddenly switch to an “ominous foreshadowing shot of the World Trade Centre.” It was all very accurate, though by now, the director’s tropes are familiar enough to have even spawned their own subgenre: the Adam Curtis parody video. There are several on YouTube, all of them trying—with varying degrees of success—to ape the voiceovers and the montages and the general ominousness.

The dramatic Curtisism “but one man thought differently” occurs in each of the parodies, but in this case, the “one man” is Curtis himself. “What was meant to be a . . .”—a declaration of counter-propaganda—here turns out to be something quite different and more modest: a mere reflection of the filmmaker’s own very personal version of recent history. HyperNormalisation is the Curtis film that most resembles the parodies. There is nothing in it he has not done before, except that—as with 2015’s Bitter Lake—his pace is increasingly relaxed, with lengthy, drifting, wordless sound/image juxtapositions that feel closer to contemporary “artists’ film” than anything on television. You could read this languor generously, as a conscious new direction in Curtis’s work. Or it could simply be the sign of burgeoning self-indulgence, the kind of thing cult figures often become susceptible to. Or perhaps, at this late stage in his career, Curtis is deliberately producing self-parody in order to please a semi-ironic fan-base, in a contorted attempt to comment on the very medium—the internet—that has transformed his approach.

Curtis’s highly distinctive style emerged fully formed in three multi-part documentary serials he made for BBC2 between 1992 and 1999—Pandora’s Box, The Living Dead and The Mayfair Set. With the exception of the Burial soundtrack (he hadn’t yet made any records) and footage of the World Trade Center (it hadn’t yet been destroyed), all three series would lead to severe intoxication after a game of Adam Curtis Bingo. You can see nascent Curtisisms in his earlier films—like The Great British Housing Disaster (1984), on the failures of industrialized housing in the UK, or The Road to Terror (1989), on the way the Iranian revolution came to devour its children—but these “current affairs” documentaries, which you could imagine airing on the History Channel, are much more conventional than the later work. The authoritative voice—here, not Curtis’s own—is less mannered, the montage a little less delinquent.

The Great British Housing Disaster tracks, through archive and specially shot footage, as well as interviews with major protagonists (such as Newcastle city boss T. Dan Smith, then only just released from prison for corruption), the way the housing crisis created by the dual legacy of Victorian slum-building and war damage was supposed to be resolved by mass production—and how the shoddiness and built-in obsolescence of that production led to a wholly new set of problems. The narrative would become familiar—left-leaning technocrats in alliance with finance and industry creating something that was not at all what any of them expected—but at the time this was not a familiar angle of approach.

The documentary’s subject is the intersection of naïve local governments, a particularly short-termist industry, and a poorly understood and even more poorly deployed technology, rather than a then-commonplace—and ultimately less disturbing—narrative: that you could blame urban failure entirely on the pipe dreams of sinister architects and planners obsessed with concrete, “cities in the sky,” and Le Corbusier. Curtis bends the facts a tad, however; the tracking shots of concrete high-rises (now rather piquant in their starkness and graininess, perfect sample material for present-day Curtis) frequently scan towers that aren’t system-built and that still stand today. The film’s final assertion—that the policy by local authorities to re-clad badly-built prefabricated towers with layers of insulation would create its own set of technical disasters—has not been borne out over the past thirty years.

Meanwhile in The Road to Terror, the authoritative voice disappears altogether, with a first-person narrative of bereavement running through the opening sequences. The film’s lingering shots of atrocity would reemerge in his more distinctive later work, as would the repeated obsession with revolution and its unintended consequences.

But leap just three years to Pandora’s Box, in 1992 (billed, typically, as “A Fable from the Age of Science”—Curtis always coyly and disingenuously claims to be a mere “storyteller”), and you have practically everything you’ll find in HyperNormalisation twenty-four years later. Part 1, “The Engineers’ Plot,” deals with the defeat of Soviet central planning, via the heroic Taylorist future envisaged by the Proletcult poet Alexei Gastev; Stalin’s ambiguous relationship with engineers—essential to the five year plans, but also the victims of the first show trials; and the USSR’s abortive experiments in the 1960s with decentralized planning via cybernetics and computerization. “To the Brink of Eternity” covers the RAND Corporation, game theory, and mutually assured destruction; “Black Power” is on Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana, and the fate of his non-aligned pan-African socialism; “A is for Atom” is about atomic power; “’Goodbye Mrs Ant” is on the unintended effects of the pesticide DDT; and “The League of Gentlemen” tackles monetarism and the formation of neoliberalism in Britain.

These themes will be familiar to anyone who has watched Curtis’s recent documentaries: 2011’s All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace is partly an expansion (or remix) of “To the Brink of Eternity”; the replacement of direct colonialism with neo-colonialism features heavily in Bitter Lake; and the failure of Soviet technocracy has a glancing role in HyperNormalisation. But it is worth pausing to note just how extraordinary this narrative was in the early 1990s. Curtis’s real story—explored here for the first time, and central to his later work, is how the hopes of mid-twentieth-century political movements that human problems could be solved (common to decolonization and Third Worldism, the revitalized Soviet socialism of Khrushchev’s Thaw, the America of the Great Society, and the Europe of social democracy) were crushed, partly through their own actions and partly a faith in technological solutions to political questions. The subjects here are always select groups of high-level political actors. (The masses, rather questionably, are usually inert or mob-like, driven by vaguely understood desires, easily manipulated.) Unlike others of his generation, Curtis does not gloat over the failure of these modernizing elites, and does not see the “end of history” as remotely positive. The cruelty and atrocity many of his films linger over—luxuriantly soundtracked by Brian Eno—are the main result of this failed project of egalitarian modernization.

Curtis obviously lives in archives, and Pandora’s Box is a showcase of suggestive imagery and historical montage that would be fascinating even with the sound off. But what is especially interesting, and is especially lacking in the recent work, is the density of interview footage. Curtis is a terrific interviewer, and questioning leads to some of the best moments in his films. In Pandora’s Box, the monetarist economist Alan Budd recounts his worry that, rather than being a neutral exercise in economic theory, the squeeze on interest rates may have been deliberately intended to crush trade union power and create a “reserve army”; a cab driver, taking Curtis past the hulking offices of Gosplan next to Red Square, tells him how their edicts regulate how far he can and can’t take a passenger.

There is much of this too in the three parts of the subsequent The Living Dead, broadcast in 1995. Its account of the uses of nostalgia is shockingly contemporary, with only an analysis of the then nascent internet absent. The focus on the uses and abuses of the Second World War presages the weaponized historical discourse in Russia and Ukraine in the aftermath of the Maidan protests and the annexation of Crimea; the episode on Margaret Thatcher’s obsession with Winston Churchill is particularly frightening viewing after the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. For all the audacious historical melange (a BBC production of The Turn of the Screw is deployed with particular sly intelligence), the interviews are among the documentary’s most shocking moments, as when the American literary historian and ex-GI Paul Fussell speaks of the incomprehensibility and horror of actually fighting in the Second World War—and the need to suppress that specific memory of combat as quickly as possible.

Much of the recent work of British writers, historians, critics, and artists since the financial crisis is contained within these films. It is not necessarily that people rip Curtis off, more that you might later realize that he got there first. Mark Fisher’s work on “capitalist realism,” Andy Beckett’s genealogy of British neoliberalism, Douglas Murphy’s studies of failed architectural futurism, Francis Spufford’s novels about code-breakers and Soviet cyberneticians (and, to be honest, much of my own work on postwar architecture)—it’s all in here already, but with pictures and music and many more interviews with the people who were actually there. The sense that Curtis was writing history on the hop, at a time when most commentators were lost in the vacuous optimism of the Blair and Clinton boom, is especially strong in 1999’s The Mayfair Set, which sees the birth of the “but one man . . .” motif. The film consists of four picaresque stories about the ways neoliberalism, deindustrialization, and neocolonialism were enforced in Britain and its empire, told through the actions of a handful of former habitués of the Clermont Club in the aristocratic London district of the title: SAS man David Stirling and the financiers James Goldsmith, Tiny Rowland, Jim Slater, and Mohammed Al-Fayed.

We watch these charismatically horrible people as they plot coups (executed in Yemen, mooted and then abandoned in Britain), asset-strip industries and plunder raw materials (in Britain and in Africa), and destroy industrial towns (on both sides of the Atlantic). A story that sees the reassertion of the stock market’s dominance of the economy in the 1970s—or the destruction of British industry—as something hatched over poker in the Clermont Club is obviously incomplete, and this extreme level of personalization is a central target for critics of Curtis’s films. But as personifications of historical forces, you can’t do much better than these insufferable, barely sane English grotesques. Right-wing historians such as Martin Weiner and Correlli Barnett argued in the 1980s that British industry’s world dominance declined due to excessive regulation, powerful unions, and a loss of an “industrial spirit”; they expected unsentimental, Thatcherite capitalism to save and expand British industry, but in the event, it was decimated yet further. The Mayfair Set provides an explanation why: production was simply less profitable than speculation. Curtis’s narration of how this happened has the virtue of being funny and frightening, rather than hectoring or depressing.

The first Curtis series I saw was 2002’s The Century of the Self. It is worth reminding Americans that at this point, British television was still dominated by five channels, so whatever was on could receive huge ratings and become a talking point in workplaces and playgrounds; you could also find yourself watching it by accident. Switching from the banal, “let me take you on a journey” documentaries that dominated BBC2 or Channel 4 (the designated “sophisticated” channels) to one of Curtis’s dizzying montages and complex arguments was an experience that could reassert your faith in television as a medium. This cast Curtis himself (along with Jonathan Meades, a very different figure of a similar age) as the last, delinquent heir of the project of patrician populism—the explaining of complex ideas to a mass audience—associated with its first director general John Reith (and generally known as Reithianism), upon which the BBC once prided itself. (The conservative Reith would have found Curtis a puzzling successor, but he might have noticed a kinship in both the seriousness with which Curtis approached concepts and histories and the disbelief in any autonomous action of ordinary people.)

The Century of the Self follows the Freud family—Sigmund, his nephew and propaganda pioneer Edward Bernays, his daughter and “ego psychologist” Anna Freud, and more bathetically, his great-grandson and ’90s PR man, Matthew Freud, whose significance is perhaps overstated, but used as a convenient means to tell the story of New Labour—as they enshrine psychoanalysis at the heart of consumer capitalism and its mass media. Here, Curtis’s montages become increasingly formal, delighting in slogans and juxtapositions. In a randomly chosen ten-second sequence from The Century of the Self, you’ll find fragments of Technicolor advertisements for consumer goods cutting into police beating protesters cutting into cheerful dogs in suburban front gardens cutting into images of office blocks, as the RP voice describes the formation of the first focus groups. You’ll then shift to a face-to-face interview with one focus grouper, who tells us the story of how psychoanalysis managed to increase sales of Betty Crocker cake mix. Analyzing the results of the focus groups, the resident Freudians decided that women felt guilty about the ease of making cakes from the mix, so the recipe was changed slightly, as the housewife was told to add an egg (symbolically, of course, granting her husband “her” eggs). Sales shot up.

The psychedelia and the hall-of-mirrors effects that creep into The Century of the Self become rampant in subsequent films like The Power of Nightmares (2004) and The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (2007). But these later documentaries still have strong theses, and they still aim, above all, to convince the viewer of a certain position, rather than losing themselves in the anecdotal flux of Bitter Lake and HyperNormalisation. The Power of Nightmares is an elegant expansion of the oft-made link between the families Bush and Bin Laden, following instead their intellectual heritage in the conservative reaction to midcentury America shared by Sayyid Qutb and Leo Strauss. The film was controversial when it was released for explicitly claiming that al Qaeda as a coherent organization, rather than a vague brand, was to a significant degree a figment of the US State Department, although that argument no longer seems quite so shocking, given the degree to which ISIS made this a central part of their dispute with the older group. The Trap, meanwhile, is another brief history of neoliberalism, this time via Isaiah Berlin’s concept of “negative freedom.” Here you start to find ideas thrown out with an ADHD-induced haste, such as an exceptionally dubious aperçu on the putative influence of Frantz Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre on the Khmer Rouge. These two films, with their international, polemical bent, expanded Curtis’s cult from shared DVDs and VHS tapes in the UK into US broadcasts, awards, film festivals, and the art world; his next film, It Felt Like A Kiss (2009), was originally part of a gallery installation and dispensed with narration completely in favor of a rhythmic, sloganeering narrative of American colonialism and consumer seduction.

“And then,” to put it in Curtisese, “the strangest thing happened.” If, in The Mayfair Set or The Century of the Self, Curtis was our last Reithian, the last documentary filmmaker in Britain to respect a mass audience’s intelligence, his more recent work has been both about and usually distributed through the internet. The mission of educating and informing—and making coherent arguments that could be conveyed in a multi-part series—was gradually replaced by a diffuse, intentionally disorienting approach that replicates the bafflement that Curtis argues is deliberately created by those in power. The tics remained the same, but something had shifted.

Ironically, at this point, as the montages became more abstract and alienating, Curtis alienated much of his internet-left fanbase by attacking them, in All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011), which traces the “Californian ideology” from its birth in game theory, to the coterie around Ayn Rand, to Silicon Valley, and through to the unintended consequences of environmentalism in central Africa and the internet-enhanced “revolutions” of the 21st century and their apparently abortive results. The argument that the new, internet-facilitated horizontal networks of the left (Occupy, et al) merely mirrored those of neoliberalism was coupled with a more pointed claim that they simply had no idea what they wanted, and knew only what it was that they opposed. Here is where the parodies come in, most of them almost certainly made by people who had once been devoted fans.

At the same time, the internet lends itself to Curtis’s work, in its elective groups of people sharing an endless loop of in-group information. In her autobiography Trans, Juliet Jacques recounts binge-watching Adam Curtis films while recovering from her gender reassignment operations; I had a similar experience recovering from Crohn’s disease-related surgery. The later films really are ideally watched one after the other, through a haze of prescription opiates, with the mind only half following the line of argument. They’re a ride, a trip, not a “story” or “fable” anymore, let alone a thesis. They also possess a humor that works well if you’re a little stoned. One sequence of All Watched Over . . . implies that, with Alan Greenspan and his “machines” running the country, Bill Clinton had nothing much to do in the White House—cue slow-motion footage of him surrounded by adoring young women, among them Monica Lewinsky. This approach mimics the passivity both lamented and reinforced by the films—Curtis isn’t exactly pleased with the notion that “we cannot improve the world,” but he drives it home through flowing montages of high-tech violence.

Though its increasingly vague and allusive approach to argumentation was new, All Watched Over . . . still retained the interview material, and as with Curtis’s earlier films much of this is hugely memorable. A member of the Ayn Rand collective tells him how she gave away her husband in order to make Ayn happy. “Wasn’t that altruism?” Curtis asks. “Yes—and I’m not proud of it,” she responds. These moments are totally absent in Bitter Lake and HyperNormalisation. The result would seem to push Curtis ever closer to, say, the film-essay tradition of Harun Farocki, the Otolith Group, Thom Andersen, Chris Marker, and Patrick Keiller. These have seldom featured on television—they belong, instead, to the arthouse, the Kunsthalle, or YouTube. Both films were distributed only on iPlayer, and both are long—HyperNormalisation clocks in at nearly three hours. They will have been watched almost entirely on the internet, most likely by an international rather than British audience.

They are also much cheaper to produce. Rather than having to jet off around the world to interview economists, think-tankers, and Silicon Valley gurus about their achievements and present them with their failures, Curtis now works solely in the archive. The result is mutually satisfying—the BBC, which clearly regards him as a puzzle, and commissions nothing even remotely as sophisticated for their arts channel BBC4, have to outlay a pitifully small amount of money (HyperNormalisation cost £30,000 to make), and Curtis, in return, gets complete control, without an editor to keep an eye on his excesses and longueurs. So while he is exceptionally good at pointing out the deleterious effects of the internet on economics and politics, Curtis seems wholly satisfied with its effects on his own work.

The best thing Curtis has produced in the last few years is his BBC-hosted blog, The Medium is the Message. Here he presents works in progress and tells tall tales, but the tight format of a blog post keeps him on his toes; the posts, illustrated with archive footage, on Murray Bookchin’s influence on Rojava or on the sheer extent of Soviet penetration into the British secret services, are better than anything in his recent films, precisely because they aren’t corralled into a wafty thesis about how “we” can no longer conceive of “alternatives” and how “our world has become” a baffling and illegible media landscape where “nothing is true anymore,” and so forth. Bitter Lake and HyperNormalisation are, however, absolutely full of material that would make for excellent blog posts, and decent one-hour TV documentaries. Bitter Lake’s account of Saudi state formation and its cogent critique of the British occupation of Helmand, or HyperNormalisation’s juxtaposition of the mirror images presented to the “West” by Qaddafi and the elder Assad, are all superb, and are good reminders of one of Curtis’s greatest strengths: a genuinely global and historical vision of US/European/Middle Eastern relations, something lost both in the right and left versions of debates about why “we” are in the Middle East. They are still often very funny in that giggly, stonerish way, though the humor seems to belong not just to a different movie, but a different medium: sequences about Donald Trump and Jane Fonda, and a hysterical montage of pre-9/11 destructions of American cities, are better made for GIFs and Vines, rather than extended, three hour argumentative film-essays.

What grates the most in the new, untrammelled, non-Reithian Adam Curtis—aside from the surely by now intentional, fan-pleasing self-parody—is the way he drifts over long images of destruction and horror, the victims (somehow more unnamed, more voiceless than ever before) exhumed, immolated, or tortured as Eno’s “On Some Faraway Beach” plays yet again. If Curtis once appeared to want to explain late, neoliberal global capitalism and tell (always admittedly tendentious and picaresque) stories about “how we got here,” by now he seems to be content with adding to the helplessness. Worst of all, he seems to be enjoying it.

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