Forty years ago, the phrase "Take me to Cuba" had become a running joke. In January of 1969 alone, there were eight planes hijacked to Cuba. The late-'60s and early-'70s spate of radicals, homesick Cubans and the unbalanced hijacking planes to the communist island, led the country to expand its airstrip to accommodate the influx of appropriated jetliners. Hijackers were hosted at the "Casa de Tránsitos" (Hijacker's House) and passengers on the hijacked planes were given a promotional tour of the socialist island and sent home with Cuban rum and cigars. Cuba also made a nice bit of pocket money by charging the hijacked airline exorbitant fees for landings as well as for the passengers' food and accommodations.
Johan Grimonprez's 1997 film Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y explores the evolution of hijacking. It's one of several of the artist's films on view at the Blaffer Art Museum in "Johan Grimonprez: It's a Poor Sort of Memory that Only Works Backwards," organized by the museum's director and chief curator Claudia Schmuckli. Grimonprez is rightly described as operating "on the borders of art and cinema, documentary and fiction." He's no conventional filmmaker — his work is like a collage, blending disparate parts into a stunning, multifaceted whole by skillfully piecing together period news and propaganda footage (which often read as one and the same) with old film clips. He layers in on-screen text, voice-over excerpts from contemporary novels and ironic soundtracks — Chaka Khan, anyone? Snippets from old commercials provide dark comic relief.
Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is the standout work in a strong show. Grimonprez uses vintage news reports and interviews with hijackers to reveal the portrait of revolutionary glamour painted by early media coverage. In 1969, Raffaele Minichiello, a young, handsome Vietnam vet who was about to be court-martialed for stealing $200 worth of stuff from the PX, hijacked a TWA plane to Rome. Footage shows the first transatlantic hijacker smoking and looking like a movie star. He was greeted as a hero fleeing the imperialist American war machine, received marriage proposals and the professed love of starlets, and was offered a part in a spaghetti western.
But, rather than simply a means to achieve a personal end, hijacking became an increasingly popular political tool — for everyone involved. The American media lionized people taking over a plane to escape from a communist country, while those fleeing to a communist country were demonized. Meanwhile, Palestine appeared on the average American's radar with the stylish and lovely Leila Khaled as a bell-bottom-wearing female hijacker. The PLO displayed its media savvy by carrying out future hijackings in front of cameras. In Grimonprez's film, planes land at an airstrip in the Jordanian desert dubbed "Revolution Airport" and passengers are shown being carefully loaded on minibuses and driven away to safety. Then the cameras capture the stunning spectacle of three massive jets exploding in the flat expanse of desert. It looks like a scene from a movie.
"All plots move deathward," says the film's narrator, reading from Don DeLillo's White Noise. And they do. The footage in Grimonprez's film becomes increasingly violent and bloody, the news coverage increasingly paranoid. Push brooms sweep up puddles of blood on the airport floor. "Experts" tell you where to sit on a plane to best avoid contact with your hijackers, to limit your time in the terminal to avoid being caught in a bomb blast. Hijackers seek media attention, the media attracts viewers by presenting tragedy and feeding fears, and politicians seize the opportunity to garner their own media attention by railing against terrorism. While Tommy Robinson, Arkansas congressman (and one of my home state's foremost morons) rants, "We need to kick some butt!" for the camera on the floor of the House, text from the artist appears on the screen, listing the number of American deaths from terrorism in 1986 — 25 versus 12,000 killed from slipping in bathtubs.
Grimonprez conveys the spiraling intensity of violence and the increasing symbiosis of terror, media, culture and politics. And you see how the culture of terrorism developed and evolved. Although the work was completed years before 9-ll, that horrific day looms in your mind as the film's grim, unseen climax. Before 9-ll there was a protocol to hijackings: Planes were taken, demands made and met — or denied, and the plane stormed. The violence did increase, but most hijacked passengers survived. After 9-ll, hijacking is viewed as a death sentence for everyone on the plane, and passengers have been taking matters into their own hands, tackling terrorists, tying them up and wielding fire extinguishers as weapons, real-life scenarios that seem straight out of an action film.
Double Take is the other major work in the show. In it, Grimonprez explores the idea of doppelgangers, blending archival footage of Alfred Hitchcock with contemporary footage of his double, Ron Burrage. He interweaves Cold War competitions, confrontations and standoffs into the story. Nixon and Khrushchev, Kennedy and Khrushchev face off. A Hitchcock impersonator reads the voice-over, inspired by a Jorge Luis Borges story, which includes pointed lines like, "They say that if you meet your double, you should kill him." The film also includes hysterical excerpts from old Folgers coffee commercials, with women frantically trying to please their husbands with good coffee. In the context of Double Take, Folger's pitchwoman "Mrs. Olsen" comes across as an assassin.
There's a lot of other interesting work in the show, including Maybe the Sky Is Really Green and We're Just Colorblind (1995-2011), a collection of YouTube and other Web videos selected by the artist. Billed as a kind of "sketchbook," the videos offer intriguing insight into Grimonprez's working process and sensibilities.
It opens with a 1959 commercial for an RCA remote control, which is followed by a 1963 ad for Swanson TV Dinners and a 1952 UFO press conference at the Pentagon. The Twilight Zone intro and Ronald Reagan's speech to the UN General Assembly also made the cut. A shopping channel spoof, in which AK-47s are cheerfully touted, is priceless as is Ali G's interview of James Baker and Banksy's "The Simpson's" Sweatshop. Donald Rumsfeld's 2002 statement on WMD and the Yes Men's Dow Bhopal spoof are also in the lineup. The artist is leading you through your own history and culture — and into his critique of it.
Showing film in a gallery space is always hard, but the Blaffer made an extra effort to present Grimonprez's work well. In an attempt to improve the gallery's acoustics, Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y and Double Take have their own carpeted screening rooms. The sound is pretty good inside; it's not cinema quality, but it's clear. And there isn't much bleed-over from other videos in the space.
The biggest problem with the films' presentation is the bench seating. Now, that may sound really petty, but these are feature-length films. Can you imagine going to the movies and sitting on a slatted bench the entire time? But the Blaffer approach is no different from just about every other contemporary art venue. (God bless DiverseWorks and their rows of cheap, comfy video rockers.) I realize it's unrealistic to set up theater seating for a temporary exhibition, but can we acknowledge the ascetic attitude that pervades the art world? Viewing films in a gallery shouldn't feel like an act of penance.
Grimonprez is making provocative art that is both informative and entertaining. "It's a Poor Sort of Memory" is a great show that requires — and deserves — a significant time commitment. Just bring a pillow.
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