DIAL H-I-S-T-O-R-Y’s Eye in the Sky
A Belgian documentary from 1997 looks back at the spectacle of airplane hijacking with pre-9/11 innocence.
“Shouldn’t death be a swan dive, graceful, white-winged, and smooth, leaving the surface undisturbed?” This question is posed more than once during Johan Grimonprez‘s Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y. The first time, it’s paired with what seems like typical landing-strip footage of a plane’s descent. But eventually, in lovingly sustained slo-mo, this particular white-winged bird crashes and explodes. Tongues of flame lick the lens. Bits of debris hit their marks. Plumes of smoke engulf the camera.
Incendiary? Yes. Grimonprez’s sniper’s-eye chronicle of hijacking and skyjacking played the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1998, even if Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y ‘s mordant perspective on societies of spectacle truly accrued prophetic meaning autumns later.
It’s no mere “accident” when, as one of Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y ‘s many mock-tabloid intertitles announces, “TERRORISM PEAKS!” a little more than midway through Reagan’s presidency. He needed terrorism—the same way his approval ratings needed a bullet in the left lung. Once that unforgettable, unforgivable man donned a cowboy hat to warn, “You can run, but you can’t hide,” he set the stage for the patronizing patriotism of an even stupider Oval Office ranch hand to make Grimonprez’s film even more relevant today.
Telemedia sure loves a showdown. But Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y ‘s collection of outtakes and not-sanctioned-for-prime-time discards reveals the stories behind the stories that are coffin-boxed between ads. For example, Grimonprez gives the distaff sides of photogenic politics the close-ups they crave. They’re more than ready. The first transatlantic hijacker, Vietnam vet Raffaele Minichiello, was matinee idol material. The Amelia Earhart of sky terror, Palestinian freedom fighter Leila Khaled, prepared for her second hostage-taking mission by getting a face-lift. Red Army guerrilla Kozo Okamoto was a hottie.
Relating passages from Don Delillo’s ‘Mao II’ and ‘White Noise’ via voice-over, the movie laments the fact that terrorists now outpower novelists in their ‘raids on human consciousness.’
Since the Ed Herlihys of yesterday are the Bill O’Reillys of today, Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y adopts a more detached, multifaceted perspective regarding political violence. Relating passages from Don Delillo’s Mao II and White Noise via voice-over, the movie laments the fact that terrorists now outpower novelists in their “raids on human consciousness.” Still, skyjackings weren’t required for the novel to become antiquated, and even Grimonprez’s film upholds the primacy of visuals over the written word. Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y ‘s bracing images ricochet between extremity (a woman shrieking for her baby at JFK Airport; pools of blood being mopped off a terminal floor) and absurdity (Soviet-approved bears on unicycles; Boris Yeltsin partying with Daddy Duck) to create a repetitive bitch-slap effect. The archival mania here possesses a reach and breadth similar to the movies of Other Cinema’s Craig Baldwin, and Grimonprez shares Baldwin’s irreverent spirit, whether matching another flameout with Van McCoy’s “The Hustle,” or sharing a especially choice post-Lockerbie account via intertitle. “I was watching This Is Your Life when the plane crashed through the roof, knocking me straight into the TV,” Bobbie Miller of Scotland says. Watch Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y and you’ll know how she felt. Oh, the humanity.
This article appeared originally in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.