On Nov. 21, 1963, John F. Kennedy gave a speech in San Antonio. Americans “stand on the edge of a great era,” the president declared, “filled with both crisis and opportunity, an era to be characterized by achievement and challenge.”
Those words might be written off as standard presidential boilerplate, uplifting rhetoric of the sort that Kennedy did so well.
Except that, because of what happened the next day, they can’t be written off. Those words assume an eerie prescience. A new era, gruesome as well as great, followed Kennedy’s assassination. The 1960s, as state of mind and cultural epoch, had arrived.
Kennedy’s death didn’t trigger that era. Demographic trends, economic growth, technological advances, and much else besides combined to produce the upheaval that was the ’60s. But that awful day in Dallas retains enormous symbolic importance as touchstone: marking a boundary between a pre-assassination then and a post-assassination now, a now that in significant ways remains with us.
The shock of Kennedy’s death eventually faded. Shock always does. Yet the confusion and suspicion that followed haven’t. They’ve become part of our cultural climate. We have not only grown accustomed to doubt and skepticism but come to expect them — so, too, with a normalization of violence and expectation of random direness.
Phrases like “conspiracy theory” and “distrust of government” were rarely if ever heard prior to Nov. 22, 1963. Soon enough they became commonplace. That a popular ’90s television series, “The X-Files,” would have three recurring characters known as the Lone Gunmen wasn’t necessarily surprising. (They even got a brief-lived spinoff series.) The trio could have as easily been called the Grassy Knolls or the Oswald Patsies. Assassination terminology, with its weird blend of the sinister and casual, had long ago entered everyday vocabulary.
The surprise was the Lone Gunmen being portrayed as eccentric misfits. The great legacy of the assassination is how many people take for granted that the only place to find the truth is outside the public square. Or as the “X-Files” tagline has it, “The truth is out there.” Dealey Plaza is where “out there” begins.
The 50th anniversary brings abundant evidence of the hold Kennedy’s death retains on the popular imagination. Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s “Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot” remains a bestseller more than a year after its release. It’s the most prominent of numerous books published in observance of the anniversary.
A cable movie adapted from “Killing Kennedy,” starring Rob Lowe as JFK, is one of many television movies and documentaries being shown throughout November. A theatrical film, “Parkland,” was released last month. It centers on events in and around Dallas’s Parkland Hospital, where Kennedy was taken after the shooting.
Art exhibitions relating to Kennedy and the assassination are on display in museums ranging from the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover and the Yale University Art Gallery to the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth and New York’s International Center of Photography. Kennedy understood the camera as few public figures have, and his responsiveness to it contributed even more than his glamorous looks and heroic bearing did to there being so many striking images of him.
Kennedy had excited artists and writers even before he became president. The most famous example is Norman Mailer’s adulatory 1960 essay “Superman Comes to the Supermarket.” And artists and writers, no less than other citizens, responded to the assassination. Igor Stravinsky composed an “Elegy for J.F.K,” with text by the poet W. H. Auden. The architect Philip Johnson designed a memorial in Dallas. Andy Warhol executed silk screens of Kennedy and his wife, of Lee Harvey Oswald, and of related images from Dallas. Books about Kennedy became a small industry.
So intense and varied a response makes perfect sense. It was of a piece with the renaming of public facilities and streets to honor the murdered president. What couldn’t have been predicted is how Kennedy and the assassination would endure as artistic inspiration.
Of course the nature of that inspiration evolved. Piety and grief gave way to disquiet and obsession. The Vietnam War and Watergate contributed to a darkening view of society, as did the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Kennedy’s brother Robert. But no other event carried quite the psychic charge that JFK’s death did. When a singer is shot onstage in Robert Altman’s 1975 film “Nashville,” a character tries to reassure the audience. “This isn’t Dallas.” No, it’s not. A dozen years after the assassination, everywhere was.
The most popular television series of the ’80s shared a name with the Texas city. Did the association with Kennedy’s murder no longer matter — or did it matter in a different way? Oswald and Jack Ruby, as individuals, seemed so puny compared to their crimes. (That, too, was part of the sense of dislocation the assassination visited on the culture.) J.R. Ewing, now there was a villain to reckon with.
Oswald is the protagonist of Don DeLillo’s 1988 novel, “Libra.” Seven years later, Mailer devoted nearly 800 pages to him in the nonfiction account “Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery” — this after having published a 1,400-page novel about the CIA, “Harlot’s Ghost,” in 1991. Not surprisingly, the Kennedy assassination figures prominently in the book. Oswald never appears in James Ellroy’s 1995 novel “American Tabloid.” He’d just get in the way of Ellroy’s luxuriating in all the tawdriness (the Mafia especially) surrounding JFK and events leading to the assassination.
For Oliver Stone, the assassination is a kind of creation myth in reverse. Eden became Gehenna just outside the Texas Schoolbook Depository. Stone’s 1991 “JFK” takes conspiracy as a given — but also Kennedy’s absolute virtue. Even though he’s seen in only the briefest of glimpses, Kennedy haunts the movie. By comparison, the way Kennedy’s memory haunts Clint Eastwood’s character in the 1993 thriller “In the Line of Fire” makes perfect sense. Eastwood plays a Secret Service agent who was on duty in Dallas 30 years before.
Our national horror stories subsequent to the assassination at least had redeeming elements: the bravery of soldiers in Vietnam, the way Watergate demonstrated the system worked, the heroism and sacrifice of New York firefighters and Flight 93 passengers on 9/11. Sometimes the redemption takes time to come out, as with the success of Tony Mendez’s hostage-rescue mission, portrayed in “Argo.” There are no second acts in American lives, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said. There certainly are silver linings in American failures, and Americans love finding them. (That’s one reason “Argo” won its best picture Oscar.) Not the Kennedy assassination: There were no silver linings. Even something as basic as conclusiveness would qualify as a silver lining. “We know who did it. We know how he did it. We know why he did it. Okay? That’s that.” Nothing like that was forthcoming.
Kennedy’s assassination was a political act and historical event. Its failure to resolve itself was, and still is, a cultural phenomenon. There have been so many investigations of the assassination, starting with the Warren Commission: by journalists, authors, obsessives, even the House Select Committee on Assassinations, in the late ’70s. The name sounds like the title of a Philip K. Dick novel. The sum of the answers they tried to give, and the further doubts they raised, contributed even more to how what happened in Dallas has ramified than the actual killing did.
That cultural phenomenon has a pair of defining texts, its Old Testament and New: the 26 volumes of the Warren Commission report, with its finding that Oswald acted alone; and the Zapruder film, the 26.6 seconds of 8mm home-movie footage shot by Dallas clothing manufacturer Abraham Zapruder, with its recording of the actual event. One created the post-assassination landscape. The other, as some saw it, offered the promise of revelation, an answer at last.
The Warren Commission report offers the truth, such as it is, handed down from on high. Commission members included the chief justice of the United States, eminent leaders of Congress, and a former head of the Central Intelligence Agency.
It’s one measure of how vastly the assassination changed the United States that the idea of a past CIA director being part of any comparable investigation now is inconceivable. The truth may or may not be out there, but wherever it is, the CIA is not to be trusted with it.
The report was obsolete the moment it was published, an overdetermined, contradictory, confusing, and often-implausible monument to what DeLillo has called “the endless fact-rubble of the investigation.” DeLillo has likened the report to a nonfiction counterpart to James Joyce’s famously hermetic novel, “Finnegans Wake.”
The Zapruder film has no counterpart. What counterpart could it have? The film’s opaque brevity is as confusing as the report’s numbing immensity and claim to finality. In fact, the report’s attempts to interpret the film are no small part of the confusion, as the commission attempted to explain why the backward jerk of the president’s body didn’t suggest a bullet fired from somewhere other than Oswald’s perch. The phrase “magic bullet” entered the post-assassination lexicon. Yet precisely because of that capacity to confuse, the 486 Zapruder frames possess an ongoing relevance and suggestiveness given to very few works, let alone one intrinsically artless and inexpressive.
Instead of counterparts, the Zapruder film has progeny. Every decade, the British film journal Sight & Sound polls critics for a list of the ten best films of all time. The most recent results, in 2012, named Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” as number one. There’s no need to solicit votes for the most discussed and analyzed film of all time. That would be the Zapruder footage.
For years, the film was impossible to see. Life magazine had bought it from Zapruder, a great journalistic coup — except that it wasn’t. To protect the magazine’s investment as well as for reasons of decency, the film was never shown. But everyone knew about it. It was widely discussed and referred to. Individual frames and sequences were reproduced in Life and elsewhere. It was a kind of like atmosphere: invisible yet everywhere.
Inaccessibility made the Zapruder film seem at once dubious (not seeing is not believing) and all the more authoritative (evidence that’s impossible to see is evidence that’s impossible to refute). Now you can see it on YouTube. In slow motion? Digitized? Zoomed in? With Dictabelt soundtrack? Hosted by Geraldo Rivera? Take your pick. The footage is there among countless cat videos and karaoke numbers and the latest viral sensations. All access, all the time. Ho hum. Except that 50 years later viewing it remains utterly unnerving — and stays so, no matter how many times you watch it. The horror of watching the impact of the second bullet, in frame 313, cannot be exaggerated.
Watching the footage is unnerving for another reason: how familiar it seems. A Zapruder aesthetic, as one might call it, long ago emerged: low-res, dreamlike, handheld, voyeuristic (the subjects unaware they are being viewed), affectless, detached, so visually unknowing as to seem (to sophisticated eyes) the height of knowingness, marked by unmediated violence and reliance on shock. Aspects of the aesthetic are there in Warhol’s underground films, cinema-verité documentary, Hollywood paranoid thrillers, video games (the violence and shock), security-camera and drone footage. Abraham Zapruder went out that day intending to take a home movie to show to his family. What he ended up with was something incalculably different, a piece of history unlike any other. Except that it did turn out to be a home movie, too: everyone’s home, everyone’s movie.