Countless airplanes, one after the other, explode on the screen in front of you, on the runway and in the sky, terrifying in their horrifying, graceful demise. How can we understand such footage? What has it done to us? Can artists tell us? You might find some answers to these questions at Edinburgh's consistently excellent Fruitmarket Gallery, in an exhibition devoted to the works of the Belgian anthropologist-turned-film-artist Johan Grimonprez.
The scenes described above are from Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997). A cut-up collage of documentary, film, advertising and television footage, it is a visual essay in which the viewer is invited to build their own connections between the clips. Ostensibly, the film is a cultural history of airplane hijackings, but the way the films are spliced together with footage relating to the development of television and mass media, and most importantly, fear and hysteria is nuanced and complex. As one watches the film, airplane hijackings begin to seem like the most horribly perfect way that those groups who are being written out of history force their way back into it. The footage of newsreels and television shows is intercut with excerpts from Don DeLillo's novels including an eerie quote from White Noise: "Shouldn't death be a swan dive, graceful, light winged and smooth?" There is something heartbreaking about watching the final montage of this film, as plane after plane dissolves into a shimmering fireburst to the cheery sound of familiar disco hit The Hustle, with its carefree flute sample, which begins to sound like nothing less than a merry and inevitable march towards tragedy.
Grimonprez's early work is also on view here too, made from his research as an anthropologist, such as It Will Be Alright If You Come Again, Only Next Time Don't Bring Any Gear, Except a Tea Kettle (1994), based on his experiences of meeting tribesmen who had seen The Sound of Music, and so assumed that the artist that came lived in a beautiful Austrian idyll. The highlight, however, is Double Take (2009), the most recent film on view at Fruitmarket. Covering the space race and the Cold War and, again, fear and its relationship to the development of television, it is plotted around Alfred Hitchcock and his film The Birds. A Hitchcock look-a-like describes his experiences, while a mysterious story (written by novelist Tom McCarthy) is narrated by a Hitchcock impersonator, describing Hitchcock meeting his own double from the future, who he decides to murder. Further than this though, it emphasises a fearful war of doppelgängers and doubles, raging throughout history. Connecting all of these threads together is complex – but once you have done it for yourself, the impression is much stronger than a dictatorial documentary.
Clear some time in your schedule, you can spend a good few hours here. This is a chance to see film art of rare brilliance, to be gently led by a film-maker to a place where you can stand back for a moment from our global media world, and see its narratives, its beauty and its tragedy.
To 11 July (0131 225 2383; Fruitmarket.co.uk)