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I've received a number of interesting responses to my own JFK Blu-ray review. Correspondent Jon Paul Henry sent me his unpublished review from 1992, which so impressed me that I've asked to reprint it here.
Essay by Jon Paul Henry
THERE IS A MOMENT early in Bull Durham when Kevin Costner, playing world-weary minor league hitter Crash Davis, who has been assigned as "minder" for an up- and-coming pitching star, delivers a courtship speech to Susan Sarandon. He's trying to convince her that she's making a big mistake sleeping with the callow young fastballer when she could be happy in the sack with a Mature Man -- him. Annoyed at her playing the two of them off against one another with some metaphysical nonsense about choice and quantum physics, he tells her he "doesn't believe in quantum physics in matters of the heart."
"Well what do you believe in then?" she says, and he replies --
I believe in the soul; the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman's back, the hanging curve ball, high fibre, good Scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, over-rated crap -- I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone; I believe there oughta be a Constitutional amendment outlawing AstroTurf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas eve, and I believe in long, slow, deep, wet kisses that last three days.
You can see from this that he's selling himself as an out-of-the-ordinary guy, someone who doesn't give a shit for the contemporary pieties of American life. And it's a well-calculated strategy. Susan Sarandon's character sees herself as the Isadora Duncan of Durham, flouting conventions and feeding the shrivelled souls of her students -- she's a Literature teacher -- with the finer, crazier things, the things that really matter. Costner's character accuses her, essentially, of selling herself short, and she is stung by it.
But here's the real point; turn that list around, and what you get is tiny perfect snapshot of everything in our society, in our generation, which it has become conventional to believe; that we have needs but not desires; that it's better not to think about sex in terms of bodies; that works which claim to be "art" should automatically be acclaimed; that soft-core-porn films are evil; and that Lee Harvey Oswald was (in his own words) "just a patsy".
Times change. In Oliver Stone's new movie, JFK, Costner's character -- New Orleans District Attourney Jim Garrison -- not only believes Oswald did not act alone, he has has grave doubts whether Oswald ever even fired a rifle in Kennedy's direction. And neither Stone nor Garrison (who has a cameo in the film playing Earl Warren, head of the infamous Commission that investigated the assassination) is alone in believing that Kennedy died as the result of a conspiracy. Most people -- over 60 percent according to polls -- do believe just that and, of the believers, many believe the CIA was somehow behind it. Even Lyndon Johnson, fingered in Stone's movie as one of the chief bad guys, believed that the Kennedy murder was a conspiracy. Speaking scornfully of the Kennedy brothers' fascination with "covert ops," Johnson said they had been "running a damned Murder Incorporated in the Caribbean"; he figured Kennedy was done in by the blowback from one of his own plots.
Most people then, think Oswald was just the fall-guy for a larger government- centred conspiracy. Stone's JFK puts that slice of public opinion up on the screen, and ses a great deal of art and artifice to make its particular choice of conspirators seem convincing. That Stone doesn't entirely pull it off is due more to the intractable nature of the materials themselves, than to any overwhelming failure of logic on his part.
NEVERTHELESS, JFK IS an uneven film, artistically speaking, and both its amazing strengths and its huge flaws can be traced to Stone's ambition to present the "essence" (his words) of the assassination, the "inner meaning of the labyrinth." Stone puts his finger here on the great weakness of most of the conspiracy theories, which is that they tell you the how -- bullets, angles, trajectories, witnesses, and so on -- in abundant detail, but have only the sketchiest of notions about why the assassination occurred. (One theory, never considered by Stone, attributes the whole thing to a dumb accident. It goes like this: Oswald fires and misses. Startled, one of the Secret Service agents riding shotgun behind the Presidential limo pulls the trigger on his AR-15, and fires the fatal head shot.)
But the one possibility the theorists never consider, and all the theories, and Stone too, are felled by this same tripwire, that is, that maybe there is no single reason "why," but only a concatenation of evil mischances. This was essentially the conclusion reached by the Warren Commission, and it may be that its findings have never been acceptable to the majority of people precisely because such a notion strikes at the rootof our hopes about the world, that everything can, in some way, eventually be explained.
But the arbitrary is anathema to conspiracy theorists. Committed to explanation, they are mostly rationalists; the inexplicable makes them antsy, a bit twitchy even; and JFK definitely has its twitchy moments. Watching the film, indeed, I was struck by its occasional air of desperation, as if Stone knew he could never really explain the assassination, either to his own satisfaction or to anyone else's. It feels sometimes as if the film is in a cold sweat, a methedrine-like anxiety that one is not communicating the dread reality to these people, that they're not getting it, a fear that one is not being quite convincing enough.
This sweatiness shows up in two ways. First, a good deal of the film has a grainy, browned-out texture to it, like old Agfachrome stock, so that the characters seem often to move around in a kind of industrial haze or smog. Blues and yellows are so rare as to be striking, and offensive almost when they do occur. Far more common are umbers and ochres, the colours of mud and twilight; JFK is for the most part a gloomy, closed-in film. Its brightest exterior is set on Louisiana's Angola prison-farm.
The Garrison character too, moves for most of the film in a grim, dust-laden twilight, and while this is an appropriate colouration for the half-world of crazed anti- communists he is investigating, it has the effect of inevitably contaminating him too, and when, at the end of the film, he harrangues the audience for fifteen or twenty minutes, it's only clear that he's supposed to be one of the good guys, not that he really is.
The limited colour range gives the film a melancholic atmosphere then, but it also gives a visual equivalent of ambiguity. The problem is that while the images and colours scream out their uncertainties, the script depends on a stark contrast between the purity of the victim and the black evil of his murderers. The film's theory pretty much collapses indeed, unless the audience believes that Kennedy was a good man. Yet in the film itself, he is the great absence, he literally doesn't exist except as a target. Stone asks us to take his word for it that Kennedy was a good man, even though (as we all know by now) he was as fallible as the rest of us.
The film's desperate air shows up, secondly, in the way Stone uses the Zapruder film. The Kennedy assassination is unique in having been captured for posterity on film, shot by garment manufacturer Abraham Zapruder. Because the film shows the actual assassination, if there was a second gunman -- hence, by definition, a conspiracy -- then the evidence must be in there somewhere, right? But the Zapruder film is, when all is said and done, only a scant few seconds of 8mm film, which is to say, it is capable of resolving only one quarter as much detail, per frame, as a 16mm film, only one sixteenth as much detail as 35mm film, and only one sixty-fourth as much detail as the 70mm film used in many movies today. When you see the Zapruder film in JFK, blown up fifty or sixty feet wide and twenty-five feet high, you get the truly eerie sensation that you are peering into the very chemical structure of the film itself, a dance of coloured blobs that comes close to a dissolution of the image. Stone seems to want to move in ever closer and closer, going deeper and deeper into the grain structure of the film to extract meaning from it.
But there's a limit to the amount of information you can squeeze out of a few seconds of jerky, grainy film. And can any event stand up under the massive scrutiny the conspiracy theorists bring to bear on the assassination? I doubt it. Mostly we accept "facts" about events, public or private, on a mixture of faith and a sense of what's probable, and generally this ad hoc approach is felt to be good enough. But when you lose your faith you lose at the same time the sense of probability which goes with it -- the ghost of Kennedy appears and invites you to probe his wounds. It is this loss of probability, and the need, therefore, to painstakingly construct it anew, that gives most conspiracy theories an almost science fiction air. They set out to build alternate pathways in time, to construct, essentially, whole worlds wherein those pathways are the true ones. The sad truth is, however, that the Zapruder film is an ambivalent document, it can support with equal cogency either the "lone gunman" theory of the Warren Commission, or a variety of second (or third, as in JFK) gunman conspiracy theories.
IF THE PETULANT DEMAND that the world yield reasonable explanations is a flaw of character widespread in the "conspiracy community," -- indeed, it virtually defines that community -- the most serious flaw in JFK, is the manner in which Stone satisfies the demand, the way he supplies all the causal links pulling the random fluctuations together. For what he does is have a renegade intelligence officer -- "Call me X," he says -- simply walk on, and, in five minutes of rapid-fire patter, tell the Garrison character how it All Fits Together.
So it's a flaw, artistically speaking, to have to tell the audience when you should be showing them. Yet at the same time, I couldn't help feeling, even as I watched the scene and squirmed in my seat at the crudity of the device, a little thrill of exhilaration at Stone's willingness to take such large risks. I felt too, that it was a measure of Stone's artistic judgement that he both got Donald Sutherland to play the part, and got the necessary seriousness out of him, for I can imagine no other actor who wouldn't have choked on the scene and reduced the audience to guffaws of disbelief; but no one laughed.
Why? At this point in the film, we are yearning for an answer, and such is the nature f the world we have been moving through, that only Sutherland's incredible, cold- blooded paranoid can give it us. He fits into this murky world as easily as a torque wrench slips over a head-bolt and tightens it down. For the duration of the scene too, the brown haze lifts, we are in a world that once again has green grass, and blue skies, and which is set against a backdrop of clean, white Washington buildings, the Lincoln memorial, the Washington monument -- everything is suddenly clear.
The same kind of flaw, and the same kind of artistic gamble, is evident at the end of the film's three hours. There, the Garrison character has finally managed to bring a couple of supposed conspirators to trial, and Stone has Costner deliver a stunning -- and I mean the word here in its original sense, that of inducing stupefaction -- fifteen to twenty minute summation to the jury. The audience became very restive during this scene, and this was not entirely due to the fact that modern viewers are heavily conditioned to absorb information in ten minute, between commercials chunks. Parts of the speech are a sort of illustrated exposition -- why the "magic bullet" could not have hit both Kennedy and Connally; why the fatal shot must have come from the front; why Oswald could not have been on the sixth floor of the book depository building -- and even though their matter is sometimes complex, these flash by wonderfully fast and lucidly.
But Stone also gives Costner a stultifyingly long Crash Corrigan type of speech, and it's Crash without the wit or humour, tendentious stuff on democracy, and open institutions, and the power of right-wing ideologues ensconced on high, and much else. It winds up with the claim (which Stone repeated in an article in Premiere magazine) that the assassination was only the visible face of a coup which led directly to heavy US involvement in Vietnam, thus wasting the blood and energies of an entire generation. There's little to take exception with in the speech's sentiments, but they don't really fit with the truly vast conspiracy which they are meant to support. This is a crucial point in the film and the creaky contrivance of this long speech (like Sutherland's "X", only more blatantly) opens up questions in the audience's mind which the rest of the movie claims to have already solved.
Yet what else could Stone have done? He has modelled his case on Garrison's, and that case was similarly contrived, similarly shakey. Thus too, as the movie ended, I got an uncanny feeling that history was repeating itself. At the real trial, after the jurors had acquitted Clay Shaw (whom Garrison had named as a conspirator), they said that while Garrison had convinced them there was a conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy, they didn't think he'd got the right fella. Judging by the restiveness of the audience during that long, long summation, by the comments I heard around me as I walked out of the theatre, and weighing too my own feelings, I guess I feel pretty much the same; likely there was a conspiracy, but not the one Stone's peddling in JFK.
WHY NOT? WELL, as a friend pointed out to me, like a lot of conspiracy theories, Stone's is just too damn big. It requires legions to plan it, squads to carry it out, and a battalion or two to maintain the cover-up. All this without anybody ever talking. Even in the world of covert operations, where "missions" are designed so that few participants know the whole story, and where maintaining secrecy is a condition of one's everyday work, it stretches credibility just a bit too far to suppose no one would ever talk. It's been nearly thirty years, after all, and the itch to cash in with a memoir, even a pseudonymous one, must surely by now be overpowering. Is there not some hapless, cashiered, disgruntled ex-CIA officer out there, a veteran of Project Mongoose maybe, whose stale coffee-breath has finally sighed out enough acid to rot his oath of perpetual secrecy down to the merest shred of shiny button-down shirt collar, thin enough at last to peer through and spot vistas of retirement boodle? How many millions would that book contract be worth?
Stone's theory also requires us to believe that the fanatical right-wing military and CIA types, having once stepped so far outside the Constitution they are sworn to uphold and defend, just as quickly stepped meekly back inside when Lyndon Johnson gave them their war. This seems to me unlikely, and in any event is partly based on a misreading on Stone's part. In his article for Premiere magazine Stone quotes Johnson as saying to the Joint Chiefs, at an informal White House gathering on Christmas Eve 1963, "Just get me elected, and then you can have your war." And Stone cites Stanley Karnow's (hardly radical) Vietnam: A History as his source. But what Karnow actually reports Johnson as saying is "Just let me get elected, and then you can have your war." What those two little skipped over words espouse -- and they're easy to miss if you're barrelling along scanning for "evidence" -- is a faith in the mechanisms of American democracy which Stone's movie professes, but which it really only believes in in a kind of abstract way. It's a telling omission. (As to the involvement of Big Business in Stone's putative coup, this surely would make the conspiracy leakier still. It seems to me too that the sort of contractors who can, without blinking, charge the government $1000 for an ordinary hammer, not only don't need a conspiracy to keep those dollars rolling in, but would probably regard an assassination as an æsthetic blunder of the worst sort.)
It's not that I don't believe a conspiracy was possible, or that it couldn't somehow be linked to Vietnam. Karnow's book, for instance, makes quite clear that there was indeed a government conspiracy to escalate the Vietnam conflict. He shows that
These are surely the actions of men who will stop at very little.
But does all of this really add up to a conspiracy to remove an elected president in order to obtain their ends? Isn't it more likely a case of each person doing what he would have opportunistically done anyway? Kennedy's assassination triggered the Vietnam buildup because Lyndon Johnson, moving into an election campaign, needed to appear to be as tough on Communism as his opponent, Barry Goldwater. That little spat halfway across the world would be just the ticket; and it'd get the Joint Chiefs off his back too; and maybe now with Diem gone, they could goddamn well settle the problem once and for all.
It seems to me that a conspiracy, if it existed, would have to meet two stringent "real world" tests -- that it involve only a small number of participants, and that each of them act only in the way they ordinarily would have acted. And the only theory I've ever seen which does this, is the admittedly fictional one in Don De Lillo's novel, Libra (which, as a bonus, has a scene wherein the King of the Weird, hairless, cancerous, anti-communist David Ferrie, seduces and makes love to committed Marxist Lee Harvey Oswald on the back room sofa in ex-FBI agent Guy Bannister's seedy offices.)
And anyway, does any of this matter any more?
Well, it seems to. Stone in particular seems dangerously serious on the subject, I mean, I see no evidence in JFK that he believes himself to be merely spinning a yarn. The film comes on burning hot with a satchel full of de-classified documents, a glittering eye, and a truth that must be uttered. It has to be said too, that the film is riveting. It is a bravura piece of work that catches and holds your attention for three solid hours. The editing alone is worth the price of admission, it's the best I've seen in years, and the design of the production, the casting, the performances, the structure of the film -- which is not so much a narrative as a case, a piece of filmed forensic rhetoric -- all these things are superb. Stone takes great risks, he gambles with his film in a way that is utterly alien to most mainstream directors, and he makes most of those risks pay off. Even the flaws in this film leave you gasping with admiration, though it must be a grudging admiration. No, Stone is not defeated by lack of courage or lack of skill, but by the intractable, mute facts themselves, which simply do not give us a conclusive reality.
One last twist to contemplate. The assassination always did exist as a movie, Abe Zapruder's home movie. After the Warren Commission had finished its report and gone home, a police dictabelt recording turned up which seemed to record the sounds of four shots being fired across Dealy Plaza from two different directions. The veracity of the recording has been questioned, so this evidence too turns out to be ambiguous. But it occurs to me that with that tape and the Zapruder film we have the two essential elements of a movie, sound and picture. Has nobody ever tried to mate the two? At the very least a failure to mate them would prove that the dictabelt doesn't record the assassination, thus putting to rest any speculations based on its supposed revelation of a shot from the grassy knoll. Surely it's worth a try ...
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