Johan Grimonprez

Johan Grimonprez’s Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is a televisually stunning, macabre, and intermittently funny meditation on Don DeLillo’s work as it pertains to airplanes, terrorism, and death. It is also, in some sense, about “history” and the possibility of what that might be. This potent mixture caused a considerable stir when the video debuted at Documenta X and, more recently, when seen at Deitch Projects in New York. The film is sometimes a little too clever for its own good (and too fascinated with crashing aircraft), but it is irresistibly watchable and brilliantly paced.

Some might find the subject and how it is handled a cause for concern, and indeed the packaging suggests a certain excess of hipness. Yet Grimonprez manages, among other things, to give a jolting historical account of an unwieldy subject—the period when air traffic became a central stage for political terrorism, or what counted as political terrorism. This is roughly the moment between the first hijackings to Havana in the late ’50s and the 1988 downing of Pan Am flight 103. Lockerbie is of course not the site of a hijacking but of the remains of an airplane totally obliterated by a hidden bomb. Without the customary threats against hostages and demands for the release of imprisoned friends, without the peregrinations to various airports and the endless negotiations, Pan Am 103 really signified the end of hijacking as a political gesture. It was a dastardly act far from the perverted, suicidal heroics of the days when, as Grimonprez reminds us, the Japanese Red Army commandeered airplanes with samurai swords. Hijacking may continue but its historical moment (in a Hegelian sense) is over.

Grimonprez has dug up a remarkable array of television news materials and spliced them together with older newsreels, instructional films about terrorist prevention, and video shots of room interiors, airport gates, and the like. David Shea’s crucial sound track combines disparate musical snippets with contemplative voice-over extracts from DeLillo’s White Noise and Mao II, all held together by a ’70s disco theme, which in its sugary, soothing way turns out to be one of the most productively annoying features of the whole film.

It is tempting to grasp Grimonprez’s often dazzling imagery as a mere translation of DeLillo in his quasi-Heideggerian mood, as brooding ruminations on being toward death, reexperience and déja vu, meaninglessness amidst media “blur and glut,” killing as a form of survival, aesthetic form as transcendence, the remarkable nature of the unremarkable, and so forth. More important, though, is what I take to be Grimonprez’s DeLillean question about history. When history has become nigh-on impossible to think, when everybody has been “absorbed” except those lethal, “serious” believers on the outside who are willing to die for belief, what might a “history” of that historical outside look like?

Grimonprez, then, is remembering something that was “serious” and outside in a present where we can no longer remember anything because nothing is serious. His homeopathic answer is resourceful, a nonlinear story of images (or a montage) depicting that familiar but increasingly blurry recent past of spectacular acts in unfamiliar ways. It is a retrieval (or even a genealogy) of a certain method or tactic that becomes available for marginalized groups who find it an economical way of engaging in spectacular politics against overwhelmingly bad odds. Grimonprez makes no judgments or grand statements. The political complexities of the events are reflected in his use of asides and leftover footage. In a way that no newscast would, he follows a woman in Tokyo rushing about in the crowds on the tarmac looking for a hostage who has returned. Another sequence quietly focuses on janitors mopping floors flooded with blood, a decidedly mundane action after a murderous airport attack. Grimonprez’s consideration of the first successful counterterrorist storming of a hijacked aircraft (Lod Airport, Tel Aviv, May 1972) is typical: first the commotion and elation over the success of the raid, followed by the cleanup in the aircraft against the backdrop of an interview with the stiff-upper-lip British air captain, then black and white footage of an unassuming young woman behind bars, washing her face and looking ineffably sad and desolate. She is identified as Rima Tannous Eissa, hijacker of the airliner, while a DeLillean voice passage tells us that “terrorists are historical because they are outside, not absorbed.”

It is hard not to take Grimonprez’s provocation seriously and his analytical indeterminacy is generally right for a very tangled set of questions. The posture, however, is not uniformly successful. Soviet newsreels recur throughout—Lenin with Krupskaya in a congenial domestic setting, Castro and Khrushchev absurdly banqueting in some subzero Soviet forest after hunting elk—but their significance is far from clear. The Eastern bloc disdained hijacking as much as the West, as Grimonprez rightly tells us, mainly because it complicated the increasingly settled divide between the two camps and proved tactically unpredictable. And yet the distinctly “Bolshevik” tenor of the Soviet imagery here suggests revolution over raison d’état.

In the peak year of 1986, Grimonprez informs us, terrorism killed twenty-five Americans. Meanwhile, 12,000 died in bathtub accidents. Terrorism nowadays is vastly more lethal but less “spectacular,” at least from the viewpoint of global media. Algerians today die by the hundreds from terrorist violence. In Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, ironically, Algeria figures as a sanctuary for hijacking Black Panthers: another time and in many ways another place. These hijackings, then, are “contemporary history” that is no longer contemporary. The bothersome question that remains is whether the upshot of Grimonprez’s nonhistorical (or accelerated, overhistorical) present is not in his DeLillean phrase “death as a swan dive,” shown here in suspiciously aestheticized ways as planes glide slowly and majestically to a crashing end.

Anders Stephanson teaches American diplomatic history at Columbia University.