Doing the Terrorist Hustle: “D-I-A-L History”

Unfriendly skies: Johan Grimonperez's "DIAL H-I-S-T-O-R-Y"

Recently, writer Andrew O’Hehir mused about the appeal of recent films addressing violent left-wing revolutionaries and terrorists like Che Guevara, Ilich “Carlos” Ramirez Sanchez and Japan’s United Red Army. As O’Hehir wrote, “They {films like Olivier Assayas’ Carlos and Koji Wakamatsu’s United Red Army} remind us that the global victory of technological consumer capitalism, which today seems as natural and inevitable as breathing air instead of water, looked far from a sure thing 40 years ago.”

Now available on Fandor, Belgian director Johan Grimonprez’s Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y has numerous points of contact with these films. Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y investigates the roads by which capitalism’s victory was achieved, and the notorious efforts waged against it. It offers a glimpse of the real Carlos, as well as several hijackings perpetrated by the Red Army.

Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-YWorking in 1997, Grimonprez obviously couldn’t foresee 9/11, but if his sensibility seemed drenched in irony and cynicism back then, it seems even more acidic today. Drawing from news clips, he creates an achronological history of airplane hijacking. This chronicle is also a story about the Cold War and the more violent elements of the ‘60s and ‘70s counterculture, as idealism turns ugly. Malcolm X makes a cameo appearance, as do Ronald Reagan and Fidel Castro. Then there’s feemale Palestinian hijacker Leila Khaled, who got plastic surgery in between holding up planes (but not out of vanity, as the film suggests; she wanted to avoid being identified and to keep her face from becoming an iconic image).

Grimonprez’s methods draw on the lengthy tradition of using found footage in avant-garde cinema. However, Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is essentially unclassifiable. One could just as easily call it an avant-garde film or documentary. While the vast majority of its footage comes from TV news, Grimonprez did film some new images himself. His main contributions are an aggressive montage, mimicking the excesses of the mainstream news media, and the use of voice-over texts about terrorism and art taken from two novels by Don de Lillo, White Noise and Mao II. Passages from de Lillo are never illustrated literally, but they interact with images.


Grimonprez flirts with ideas that now seem politically incorrect after 9/11. Drawing on de Lillo, he lusts after a past in which artists had as much power to alter the average citizen’s consciousness as terrorists now do. He plainly wants to make a dangerous work, but moral panics over, say, Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho and Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP aside, this is nearly impossible to do these days. At times Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y recalls everyone from Bruce Conner to Jean-Luc Godard, but its closest brothers are Craig Baldwin’s witty found footage essays. Like Baldwin, Grimonprez is clearly after a political goal, but he’s more willing to go for a joke – the film makes biting use of disco songs like “Do The Hustle” and “I’m Every Woman” – or to risk seeming incoherent than to make an obvious point. It’s dazzling and a little baffling.

DIAL H-I-S-T-O-R-YGrimonprez would go on to get a limited American arthouse distribution with Double Take, a slicker riff on HItchcock and the Cold War. If Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y now seems dated in some respects, its ironies are all the more bitter. Anyone who’s been to an airport recently will laugh at a newscaster’s observation that “the less time in a terminal, the safer you are” or another’s demonstration of a bomb hidden in an aerosol can. The world of Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y was violent but, in some respects,  more innocent. Watching it now, one almost feels nostalgic for the tragedies of the past.

Steve Erickson is a freelance critic who lives in New York. He writes for Gay City News, The Nashville Scene, the Tribeca Film Festival’s website, ArtForum, Film Comment and other publications.


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