There’s a new Adam Curtis film. It’s titled ‘Hypernormalisation’. For a (probably) limited time, those outside the UK can watch a wonky rip here:
Graphic images and ideas abound, so there’s your warning, I guess. If you’re my super young nephews, ask your parents. Or watch it first and ask your parents a whole lot of other questions later. Whichev.
‘Hypernormalisation’ is a very good film. Adam Curtis is also responsible for ‘Century of the Self’, one of my favorite films of all time. Though both ‘Century’ and ‘Hypernormalisation’ deal with real events, use real footage and interviews, and trace realistic lines to how we got to our present-day life, I hesitate to call them documentaries. The theses are always a little too clean.
Rolf Pott’s, in his piece ‘Notes On the Narrative Conundrum of Baseball Fandom’ (https://medium.com/…/notes-on-the-narrative-conundrum-of-ba…), drops this gem:
“In his groundbreaking 1932 book Remembering, British psychologist F. C. Bartlett describes an experiment in which people were told fables sown with non-sequiturs and illogical complications; when asked to recount the tales later, the test subjects smoothed and simplified the anomalous-seeming details, resulting in clearer, easier-to-comprehend stories. Bartlett’s conclusion — that we remember events via simplified narratives rather than convoluted facts — seems perfectly tailored for the lore of baseball. As the 2011 ESPN documentary Catching Hell illustrated, Bill Bucker became the unworthy scapegoat of a much more complicated Red Sox meltdown (including managerial blunders by John McNamara, and pitching gaffes by Calvin Schiraldi and Bob Stanley), and Steve Bartman’s foul-ball interference was far less catastrophic than a string of eighth-inning shortcomings by the Cubs’ defense (including poor fielding by Alex Gonzalez and Sammy Sosa, and ineffective pitching by Mark Prior and Kyle Farnsworth).”
In the end, this is how I feel about Curtis’s films. They provoke a sense of sufficient #wokeaf-ness, but you feel like things have been smoothed and simplified (as much as a three-hour film can be smoothed and simplified). Granted, even smoothed, these things are like the Super Bowl for people who like to drown themselves in the mire of depressing, deep philosophy. That’s the real entertainment value, and, by that mark, the films sure do “entertain.”
That said, the films entertain on the traditional level, too. For instance, Curtis’s eye for stock footage is still virtuositic, and his understanding of how to build the slow push and pull of a narrative reminds me of Frank Herbert in his prime. He also gets to land a few ideas that truly eat me up inside, like how radicals and liberals retreated into art to critique society instead of trying to upend the hardening conventions they found deplorable. Ouch. Those are the kind of tidbits you quote at parties. However, in the back of your mind, you always think about what else might’ve been happening outside the scope of Curtis’s rescued archival footage.
That has been a reoccurring subtopic in the recent ‘Hardcore History’ series “King of Kings” (http://www.dancarlin.com/hardcore-history-series/). Dan Carlin travels all the way back to the Achaemenid Persian empire and tries to separate fact from the smoothing of Herodotus’s reporting. Unfortunately, the messy stuff never has much of a shelf life. We get Herodotus’s tabloid-y coverage, and that’s kinda it. The rest, like all details, has been forgotten.
While Carlin’s WWI series will be his masterpiece, “King of Kings” is a great place to start because so much of “Kings” is dedicated to ruminating about the fallibility of history. It’s honest in that what we think might’ve happened probably didn’t, at least not in a way we can easily recount to one another in the space of a conversation. Curtis seems to be after similar ends, though you have to wonder if he too has fallen victim to that same human tick as Bartlett’s subjects and the West’s first historian.