THE ZAPRUDER FILM
The photographic image has become the sacred relic of our times. The Zapruder film is more important than Kennedy's grave or even his bones. It begins as history and ends as theatre, an interactive movie for the global voyeur.
Frame 230 -- Kennedy is shot, slumps to his left as if seeking solace in his wife's bosom. Frame 313 -- the right side of his head is blown off in a blood burst. Jackie scrambles onto the wide trunk of the Lincoln convertible, extends her hand to Secret Service Agent Clint Hill who has jumped onto the bumper. Governor Connally sags down in his seat.
Zapruder is panning left to right, following the motorcade's transit through Dealey Plaza. It's 12.30 pm, the shadows of the onlookers extending north like astrological spokes. The man with a black umbrella absurd in the high noon sun... the Woman in Red... the Woman in Black... a man leaps forward into a crouch as if in a ballet... and the Lincoln disappears into the tunnel of the underpass, moving into symbolism forever.
We search the crowd trying to distinguish players from audience, guilt from innocence, fate from chance. One shooter, two shooters or many shooters? Kennedy is dead, shot by the Secret Service, the FBI, Texas nationalists, the KGB, Fidel Castro, the Mob, Lyndon Johnson -- everybody has a motive. Better still, they all have metaphor.
"I saw his head come off... but I kept on shooting" (Zapruder)
Just as it's an opportunity for Oswald to shoot the President, it's also one for Zapruder. Which player is operating in metaphor? As Oswald's role is circumstantial -- seen, but not recognized as the shooter -- he also becomes a metaphor in the interactive movie. Like Zapruder, he is also a voyeur, a sentinel on the 6th floor of the Book Depository. He sees what Zapruder sees: two men in a black Lincoln getting shot. His role as a metaphor is completed when he's arrested in a movie theatre just over an hour later, and his role as a player is completed when he's shot dead by Jack Ruby two days later at the Dallas jail, the killing broadcast nationally on NBC.
Film is a dialectic of documentary and fiction. The Zapruder film is the seminal gun drama on which the world has imposed its fantasies, developed its fictions. The time: November 22, 1963. The place: Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas. The action becomes fated rather than circumstantial. Zapruder moves like a director instructed by his unconscious, sets up his camera on a concrete pedestal, the best position for filming the execution. How far does his design extend? Is Oswald in the sixth floor window with his Mannlicher-Carcano 6.5 mm rifle by direction? Is he a player... or is he a stuntman standing in for another player, the real adversary in the scenario?
Behind every Brutus stands a Cicero.
Zapruder provides the documentary, we the fiction. Perhaps it started with Garrison and his bootlegs, although he was always playing to a gallery of believers, fellow citizens eager to exchange guilt for conspiracy. Reality is always the struggle of opposing fictions. Oliver Stone gave us his extravagant fantasy, just as the Warren Commission gave us theirs 35 years ago. Books, movies, seminars, conferences, and now web sites help drive the fiction like a serial drama rotating its characters while maintaining its setting.
The Man with the Black Umbrella stands between Zapruder and Kennedy like a professional mourner hired in anticipation of the event. Partially hidden by the Stemmons Freeway sign, his symbolism is enhanced by the conjunction he creates. As the Lincoln emerges from behind the sign and Kennedy grimaces in pain, it becomes obvious: Zapruder, MBU, Kennedy = Death.
The Woman in Red -- who is she? To some, she has a name: Jean Hill, Dallas schoolteacher and "the last dissenting witness". As the conspiracy momentum develops, her story alters, embraces the symmetries suggested. She hears multiple shots. She hears Jackie talking to a non-existent dog. She doesn't see SS agent Clint Hill jump onto the trunk of the Lincoln but she sees Jack Ruby on the grassy knoll. She isn't there for Kennedy but for a police outrider in the Presidential motorcade, a guy she fancies. What does this all mean? Triangulation? It engages the imagination, a sexual undertow like Zapruder's "assistant" holding him from behind as he films the tragedy.
Dealey Plaza resembles a theatre. Consider the Texas Book Depository rear centre stage. Pergolas with their pseudo-classical columns extend right and left as Elm Street cuts the stage diagonally. You can be in the pergolas or on the railway overpass or on the grassy knoll or even in the Book Depository. You might have a camera, you might have a gun.
Some say the Zapruder film is a fake, part of the conspiracy. More specifically, the original 8 mm print has been tampered with, frames removed, frames inserted in a deliberate prevarication of the truth. In the "claw shadow" and "claw flare", in the image ghosting and the obvious frame splices the conspiracists see tampering, take comfort in these technical avenues to further fiction. It's not good enough to accept that Life magazine technicans damaged the original print while making stills for publication. Evil exists in the off-frame shadow between the sprockets, concealing players waiting to be unmasked.
the Groden movie: Anonymous, Muchmore, Nix and Zapruder
Perhaps the real Kennedy assassination movie is the Robert Groden montage. Here the symmetry becomes mystical, the intention religious. In 1968 Groden clandestinely copies the Zapruder original when it's sent by Life to the lab where he works in New Jersey. Like the photographer in Antonioni's Blowup, Groden believes the truth can be discovered by improving upon the original. He softens Zapruder's camera jitter and makes the assassination the climax of a longer narrative by incorporating footage by other shooters who filmed the motorcade prior to its swing into Dealey Plaza. Thus Zapruder becomes one of four cameramen -- Anonymous (commercial footage), Murray Muchmore, Orvil Nix, and Abraham Zapruder.
By extending the narrative without substantially leaving real time sequencing, Groden enhances the atmosphere of the setting and controls the anticipation of the killing. His montage was shown on the Geraldo Rivera show, Good Night America, March 6, 1975. "It's the most horrifying thing I've seen in the movies," says the reigning high priest of media hip, Geraldo, as they rerun the Zapruder sequence in slow motion. Frame 313 becomes the indictment -- anyone with eyes can see that Kennedy is thrown backwards by the impact of the bullet that tears the right side of his head off, ergo, the shooter is to the South, probably on the railway overpass, or in a sympathetic vector to the railway. And as everyone knows, Oswald is sited in the rear, to the North....
The obfuscation is in the spacial perception. Whatever else it might be, Zapruder's film is two-dimensional. The plane of viewing is flattened, the isometrics deceptive. As it doesn't include the Book Depository, Oswald is off-stage, his angle of fire fantastic, improbable when considering the fatal head shot. It doesn't matter if the rank and file know nothing about ballistics or gun-shot (nervous system) trauma or whip-lash -- Groden's movie becomes another optical version of the truth for the citizens of Flatland.
The off-stage action in the Zapruder movie is just as troubling and extra-sensory. How many shots are fired? We don't hear any, of course, as this is a silent film. The Lady in Red says four or five. Oliver Stone says six. A man in the underpass is wounded by a piece of shrapnel. A bullet in the Lincoln, a bullet hole in the infield, a bullet hole on the sidewalk.... Three cartridge shells are found with Oswald's abandoned rifle but it seems impossible that he had time to get off three shots. If indeed (as William Manchester reports) a bullet can be chambered and fired in a rifle like Oswald's in 2.3 seconds, and Zapruder is filming at 16 frames per second (the minimum for persistence of vision), then Oswald has lots of time. If the first shot precedes 230 -- when Kennedy's Lincoln is masked by the Stemmons Freeway sign -- then it really doesn't matter what speed Zapruder's camera is running at or if Oswald was ever in the Marines or if there are two or three Oswalds.
Evidence is still being found, the script revised: guns, shell casings, another 8 mm movie. Like totems at a shrine, every offering becomes an artifact. Expect a rise in death-bed confessions.
To pose such questions engages you in the fiction. You enter the ambiguities, assign character and motive, invent geometries, trajectories, solutions. Re-enact the drama on location: load a black Lincoln convertible with dummies, send it down Elm Street at 11.2 mph with a shooter in the Oswald window. Take 2: send it down Elm Street at 11.2 mph with a shooter on the railway tracks. Take 3: repeat sequence with shooters everywhere. Film everything at 96 frames/sec or faster if possible. You want to know the truth? It's in the re-run, in the deja vu.
the LMH digital Zapruder
After thirty-five years of all those spectral bootlegs, will the hallucinating stop now that we have the latest techno revisionist Zapruder in the form of the LMH digital copy? Stabilized, balanced, rendered, this version gives us everything, including the imagery captured outside the projection frame. There are five digital versions in the MPI release of the LMH remaster, including the original 8 mm 4:3 frame view, outside frame view (sprocket track imagery), slow motion versions, and a grand finale centre frame version.
Frame 313? It seems incredible that Jackie isn't hit. Again, the spacial depth is difficult to imagine, the image as flat as a pop art painting by Roy Lichenstein. There's a flash -- not unlike a lens flare when catching the sun head-on -- which shrinks back to Kennedy's head and the red halo. This implosion certainly helps insinuate that the bullet has come from the South. And as the head snaps backwards, can there be any doubt?
Absolutely. There has to be a parallax problem. It might be frontal... or it might be side shear and recoil, the final heave of a scrambled nervous system. Despite the digitization, despite the resurrection, the moment remains existential.
The production is distributed by MPI under the title Image of an Assassination: a New Look at the Zapruder Film. Some frames appear to be missing or reversed, as if the reassembly is designed to mess with our minds, infuse our fictions. We see more, understand less. In this way it appeals to our sense of tragedy, agitates our desires. Impressive? Of course. Interactive? As always.
The compilation details the history of the Zapruder film through a series of interviews and VO narration. The WFAA-TV (Dallas) interview with Zapruder the day of the assassination is especially interesting:
Zapruder: I got out there about a half hour earlier to get a good spot to shoot some pictures... and I found a spot, one of these concrete blocks they have down there at that park near the underpass... and I got on top and there was another girl there from my office, she was right behind me... (interviewer adjusts Z's mic) And I was shootin' as the President was comin' down from Huston Street and makin' his turn... he was about half-way down there when I heard a shot (makes a down angle motion with his left hand) and he slumped to the side... like this (mimics left slump). I heard another shot or two -- I couldn't say if it was one or two -- then I saw his head open up... (hand to head) all blood and everything... and I kept on shootin'....
Zapruder is like a benevolent Erich von Stroheim: bald, double-chin, glasses, black bow tie, enigmatic pin in his lapel. The interviewer is smoking, his jowelled face and raccoon eyes evoking a Nixon parody. Isolated in time from its cultural ethos, the scene seems false, succumbing to the improvisation of the moment. What else could it be? Incompetence and duplicity are always in tandem, like guilt and innocence in a running child.
© LR 8/99
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