The Dramatic Curtisism
HyperNormalisation, BBC, 2016
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.