Tuesday, February 28, 2017

HyperNormalisation ***1/2 (2016)

HyperNormalisation, a 2016 BBC documentary directed by Adam Curtis, takes an insightful look at the past 40 years of history to comprehend the existential cul-de-sac of the current moment.  The film examines international politics, technological developments, the media, pop culture, and corporate power.  Nearly three hours long, HyperNormalisation may not be the definitive statement of modern history, but a place to begin the conversation.

The film begins in 1975 when New York City faced bankruptcy and urban decay, in a desperate move the city turned over its finances to private bankers. Young real estate developer Donald Trump saw an opportunity and secured loans from the banks to build luxurious hotels, rising him to celebrity status. He came to personify Reagan era capitalism and excess.

As the counterculture went into terminal decline in the 1970s, artists turned inward in the hope of inspiring change through self expression, in an archival interview with Patti Smith she reflected on the loss of hope among artists to effect any political change through mass movements. Pop Culture began to neutralize radical art, Nike once used the Beatles song "Revolution" in a TV ad. Madison Avenue made radical the new cool, but a toothless one.

Meanwhile Secretary of State Henry Kissinger attempted to build a balance of power in the Middle East, which entailed playing Arab countries against each other. The Syrian leader Hafez Al-Assad felt betrayed at Kissinger's duplicity, warning him it would have unthinkable consequences for the West and the region. I remember a history professor beginning a lecture on Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy with the caveat, "he's not welcome over there anymore."

Cyberspace brought hope for some, prophets from the 1960s envisioned an online world of people communicating and acting without government or corporate interference, a realization of the 1960s dream of a participatory democracy. But as the early hackers demonstrated, corporations were already using the cyber world to gain ever more control over citizens by mining their financial data.  

After the Vietnam debacle Western governments increasingly used the media to blur reality, utilizing "perception management" to mislead people. Libyan leader Gaddafi was made into a villain by the Reagan Administration only to become an unlikely ally in the 2000s for agreeing to halt his already defunct "weapons of mass destruction" program, moving from "fake villain" to "fake hero." 

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe in 1991 prompted euphoric declarations of "the end of history," a new golden age for liberal democracy. Yet anxieties of the future persisted. Conspiracy theories proliferated and became part of pop culture on TV shows like The X-Files. HyperNormalisation notes how movies were seemingly preparing people for a major catastrophe with recurring images of New York City and Washington D.C. being attacked. The future landscape looked like a scary place and politicians adjusted their rhetoric accordingly, reaching apotheosis with the 2016 Trump campaign.

When the catastrophe did arrive on 9/11/01 politicians spoke of more security to prevent future attacks to a jittery populace, while destabilizing the world with aggressive foreign policies in the name of security and protection from "weapons of mass destruction." The movies had prepared us. 

Yet there were encouraging signs. In 2008 Americans elected Barack Obama President, a watershed (and sadly divisive) moment in American history.  The Arab Spring portended a new wave of democracy in the Middle East. The Occupy Wall Street Movement fired a salvo at the exploitative financial establishment.  Yet Obama's presidency ended with America more divided than ever, while the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street quietly dissipated.

In Russia Vladimir Putin built an autocracy out of the old Soviet Union, emphasizing national pride and militarism as an alternative to Obama's globalism.  Putin kept his opponents confused, a shape shifter with ambiguous motives and talent for leaving a trail of bodies in his wake.  Others took notice (and delight) at Putin's methods. 

The year 2016 brought about a perfect storm of "reality distortion." The Trump campaign launched a movement spearheaded by the nationalistic alt-right who found true love in their own American Putin. After years of repressed rage at politicians and the establishment, Americans between the coasts were ready for an outsider to disrupt Washington. As Trump broke the rules of campaign etiquette and horrified his critics, Red State America went into happy dance mode. In melodramatic stump speeches, influenced by WWE wrestlers, Trump promised to bring back jobs, crack down on illegal immigration, get the terrorists, and negotiate fantastic trade deals. He had them at hello.  

Trump's Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, albeit the winner of the popular vote, epitomized establishment politics and failed to win pivotal swing states in the Rustblet. Trump used social media to control the narrative, always a few steps ahead of the competition. Social media mutated into an echo chamber and the terrain of trolls free to express their retrograde politics in the relative comfort of cyberspace. Social media, heralded as a decisive factor in enlarging democracy, took a macabre turn foreseen in the Netflix series Black Mirror.

One may not walk away feeling better about the current situation after watching Normalisation, but it will provide context and knowledge.  In an interview Curtis talked about change being possible if enough people can come together want it. If you sensed things were not quite right before the election, now things really feel disjointed. And that could result in more collective action for the future. Hopefully. The early signs are encouraging. 

So society has arrived definitive moment with a stark choice: retreat into further alternative realities of empty pleasures or work towards alternatives through community and real world action. HyperNormalisation features many competing narratives that do not add up to any definitive answers - that's the point. 

Also dig the eclectic soundtrack, a free association of pop culture references. 

(HyperNormalisation is available for free on Youtube)

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