Monday, March 07, 2011

Myth and countermyth: responses to the Kennedy assassination (guest article by J.D.)

My thanks to J.D. from the excellent Radiator Heaven, for contributing this in-depth and insightful article.

The assassination of American President, John F. Kennedy is a watershed event in American history that has provoked people to question their own beliefs and those of their government. Yet, for such a highly publicized affair there are still many uncertainties that surround the actual incident. Countless works of fiction and non-fiction have been created concerning the subject, but have done little in aiding our understanding of the assassination and the events surrounding it. As Don DeLillo comments in his novel, Libra, "Powerful events breed their own network of inconsistencies." DeLillo also makes this observation in an essay entitled, "American Blood" in Rolling Stone magazine, which contains the groundwork for issues that he would later explore in more detail in Libra. DeLillo's novel depicts the events leading up to and after the assassination like a densely constructed film complete with jump cuts and multiple perspectives. This creates a strong parallel between Libra and Oliver Stone's film, JFK which covers much of the same ground and uses many of the same techniques but to achieve different conclusions. Libra and JFK present the assassination as a powerful event constructed by its conspirators to create confusion with its contradictory evidence, to then bury this evidence in the Warren Commission Report, which in turn manifests multiple interpretations of key figures like Lee Harvey Oswald. Libra examines the conspiracy to kill Kennedy as an ambiguous occurrence filled with many coincidences, loose ends, and viewpoints; in contrast, JFK offers a more structured examination of the conspiracy from one person's point of view where everything fits together to reveal a larger, more frightening picture implicating the most powerful people in the U.S. government. Libra and JFK are works which present the Kennedy assassination as a moment that contains many discrepancies and misleading facts, but differ in their presentation of how this affects our perception of the event.

For Don DeLillo, the Kennedy assassination is an important event not only in his life, but as an author. The affair has had a profound effect on DeLillo who states that "it's possible I wouldn't have become the kind of writer I am if it weren't for the assassination." The assassination left DeLillo with the feeling that he had lost a "sense of manageable reality" which made him more aware of "elements like randomness and ambiguity and chaos." It is these feelings that DeLillo would later convey in the character of Nicholas Branch in Libra. Branch must come to terms with his own feelings of confusion and self-doubt while investigating the death of Kennedy and the conspiracy that surrounds it. DeLillo expresses these feelings of randomness and ambiguity in the incidences leading up to the assassination. They are often presented in an uncertain way to convey the conflict between the facts, the eyewitness accounts, and the memories that often contradict one another, obscuring the truth. History has been manipulated so that we can no longer tell the difference between fact and fiction. There is a passage in Libra where Lee Harvey Oswald gets into a shoving match with some Anti-Castro Cubans and not even Oswald can remember how it was started. There is a sense that not only the reader is being manipulated, but the characters as well. This is apparent when DeLillo writes, "Lee felt he was in the middle of his own movie. They were running this thing just for him.” Oswald recognizes that the boundaries between what is real and what is not are beginning to blur. The simplest facts like his run in with Anti-Castro Cubans "elude authentication" because the origins of the event are unknown and we are left to theorize what the motivations were for it happening.

JFK also creates this blur of reality and fiction by mixing real footage with staged footage so that it becomes difficult to discern what really happened and what is merely speculation. Oliver Stone does this in order to create what he calls "a countermyth to the myth of the Warren Commission because a lot of the original facts were lost in a very shoddy investigation." Like Libra, JFK presents the incident between Oswald (Gary Oldman) and the Anti-Castro Cubans as a simple event which becomes obscured by multiple interpretations. Stone begins the scene in 16mm, black and white film stock and then switches to Super 8mm in color with Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) narrating the whole scene. Stone is presenting three different points of views in this scene; one in 16mm black and white, one in Super 8mm color, and Garrison's own narration: “It was a public event, it was seen by people, and to this day there are different versions of what happened that day. Were the Cubans really angry, or was it a stunt? Was it a staged arrest? We wanted to fracture the perception of it as a mere flashback from across the street.” The change to Super 8mm symbolizes a different view or reading of the event as reconstructed in the mind of the film's protagonist, Jim Garrison. This is similar to what the characters in DeLillo's Libra experience, except that there is no single protagonist as there is in JFK. Instead, Stone creates different points of views or "layers" through the extensive use of flashbacks within flashbacks. This technique conveys the notion of confusion and conflict within evidence that Libra creates through its various protagonists.

One of the major sources of this confusion of data and information stems from the Warren Commission Report which DeLillo describes as "a ruined city of trivia." This encyclopedic novel is a microcosm of the assassination itself. It takes simple facts and scatters them about to create a convoluted path that both Nicholas Branch and Jim Garrison must navigate in order to find the truth. As Garrison explains, "It's all broken down and spread around and you read and the point gets lost." Garrison begins to interview people who testified in the report only to find that, as one witness points out, "It was a fabrication from start to finish." Within the report there are contradictions and forged testimonies supporting the government's theory that Oswald acted alone and that there was no conspiracy. Like the assassination itself, the Warren Report contains all the facts but distorts and presents them in such an unorganized fashion that any attempt to piece together a coherent narrative or conspiracy is "like drowning." It is up to Garrison to make sense of this mess and establish a coherent narrative which he does at the conclusion of the film when he presents his case in court.

The facts clearly aid the conspirators who, with some convenient coincidences like Kennedy's decision to visit Dallas, create a puzzling trail for Branch to follow. To this extent, the conspirators even create figures like Lee Harvey Oswald, who are ambiguous in nature. From the start, the conspirators plan to put together someone, to "build an identity, a skein of persuasion and habit, ever so subtle. He wanted a man with believable quirks." The conspirators construct multiple Oswalds to support a lone assassin theory. By creating several Oswalds, the conspirators effectively create a metaphoric room of mirrors where the real Oswald cannot be separated from the many fakes. This confusion works well as Branch realizes, "They all look like Oswald. Branch thinks they look more like Oswald than the figure in profile, officially identified as him.” Branch is presented with facts about Oswald that contradict themselves. Oswald appears in several places at the same time in a rather crude fashion so that Branch no longer knows what to believe. DeLillo shows how these multiple images of Oswald, created by the conspirators, are rough but effective in masking the real man. Branch is able to separate the multiple Oswalds, but this still does not get him any closer to the heart of the conspiracy or the true nature of Oswald. Branch has become tired of sorting through these lies and longs for a more structured path where everything is black and white.

This structured path lies in JFK as Garrison and his team also sort through the multiple Oswalds. Stone presents many of the same events as described in Libra while also crosscutting footage of an unknown person piecing together a photograph. This in turn is crosscut with real photographs of Oswald and staged shots of Stone's Oswald. As the mysterious photograph is completed, it is revealed to be the famous Life magazine cover of Oswald with the rifle that supposedly killed Kennedy and that "pretty much convicted Oswald in the public eye," as one character observes. This mixing of footage, both real and staged, symbolizes Oswald's various pasts, both real and faked. By showing the famous Life photograph being doctored, Stone is using that as a metaphor for Oswald's past. On the surface it looks believable, but upon closer scrutiny there is a more complex story as Garrison wisely notes, "They put Oswald together from day one." This is true both figuratively as the montage of fake Oswalds demonstrates and literally as the construction of the famous photograph illustrates.

DeLillo is an author clearly aware of film techniques: the energy they contain and the power they convey. This is clearly established in his essay, "American Blood" where he states, "Violence itself seems to cause a warp in the texture of things. There are jump cuts, blank spaces, an instant in which information leaps from one energy level to another." This effect is used in describing the death of Kennedy. DeLillo presents four different perspectives of the event: one from Oswald's point of view, a second from another hired assassin, a third from a woman on the grassy knoll, and a fourth from Nellie Connally. DeLillo effectively jumps from one perspective to another in order to show the assassination from all the crucial vantage points; from the casual observer, to someone right in the motorcade, to one of the assassins. Each jump cut causes "a warp in the texture of things" so that there is a feeling of chaos intruding on the event. As each account is presented, information "leaps from one energy level to another" and a disordered view of the assassination is revealed. By presenting these various perspectives, DeLillo is commenting on how an event can be interpreted differently by many people so that there is no clear cut reading.

JFK adheres to DeLillo's above statement in an even more precise fashion with its depiction of the assassination. Stone mixes real footage of Kennedy's motorcade with his own footage, while also using various film stocks to show the multiple interpretations of a public event that was viewed by many people. Stone jumps from Kennedy's arrival in Dallas to his motorcade heading for Dealy Plaza with several quick edits. He also crosscuts footage of a clock at Dealy Plaza to show that time is running out for Kennedy, he will soon be killed. This quick rhythm of editing creates an anxious mood and the tension increases. The film cuts to black followed by the sound of a gun being cocked and then fired. Kennedy has been shot. A black and white shot of a rooftop with birds flying into the sky appears with the sound of the gun shot echoing into the distance. Stone has taken what DeLillo has said in his essay and translated it visually. Stone "jump cuts" from the footage of the motorcade to a "blank space" for an instant so that "information leaps from one energy level to another." We go from the energy of the assassination to the shockwaves that ripple out by introducing the film's protagonist, Jim Garrison and showing his reaction to what has happened This is the leap that DeLillo writes about it in his essay, but depicted visually. By mirroring DeLillo's statement with this sequence Stone creates the strongest link between his film, which seems conscious of DeLillo's essay, and Libra.

Libra and JFK are important works in the sense that they accurately portray the assassination of John F. Kennedy as a complex public event surrounded by chaos and confusion. Both works present an intricate conspiracy at the source of the killing, but diverge at how they present it. Libra reaches the conclusion that the conspiracy to kill Kennedy "succeeded in the short term due mainly to chance." DeLillo presents several points of view, ranging from the individual conspirators, who create a confusing web of information and elaborate figures like Lee Harvey Oswald, in order to dissuade characters like Nicholas Branch from trying to make sense of it all. The conspiracy starts as a small affair discussed by a few men that grows into a large chaotic web that connects all the characters through chance and coincidence.

JFK, on the other hand, contains one main protagonist who exposes the conspiracy to be an intricately constructed coup d'├ętat. Stone does not have the time to go into as much detail as DeLillo's novel and as a result paints his canvas with broad brushstrokes and powerful images in an attempt to create "a countermyth to the myth of the Warren Commission." DeLillo opts for a more intellectual and detailed examination of the assassination as one character in Libra explains, "Let's devote our lives to understanding this moment, separating the elements of each crowded second." JFK takes a larger, confrontational stance by boldly implicating the government in the conspiracy and the mainstream media in conspiring to cover it up. Stone is using the persuasive power of film to reach the largest number of people he can in order to wake them up and to reveal how they have been deceived by higher powers. There is no mistaking the importance of the assassination of Kennedy in American culture. Both Libra and JFK are proof that Kennedy's death continues to intrigue and interest people who are more open to the idea of a conspiracy that these works openly advocate.


Samuel Wilson said...

Impressive. I've often wondered why Stone's film offends people so much more than even best-seller novels like Libra (or Ellroy's American Tabloid) and I think J.D. hits the answer on the nose by stressing how Stone endorses a specific conspiracy theory identified with a specific controversial person, while novels like DeLillo's are merely suggestive by comparison. Stone might have been on safer ground had he blamed the assassination on the "Beast" he invokes in Nixon, a force more amorphous and masterless and thus more like something out of DeLillo's world.

BRENT said...

You know, it is very rare for me not to see a movie, but JFK is one I ABSOLUTEY refuse to.
I've read extensively of JFK and his family, and while I don't pretend to be an expert I'm sure by now I have a handle on the subject.
Stone's movie is historical nonsense and I can't believe that so many people brought it. Sure, film like any other form of art or expression, shouldn't be censored but I somehow draw the line at absolutely garbage like this.
For me Oswald shot Kennedy, period. There was no second gunman, no bullets doing impossib le arcs, no grassy knoll with a boogey man behind it, etc ,etc, blah, blah, blah.
Funny thing, what is it about the Kennedy assassinations? There are those who still think there was a second gunman who shot RFK. My god!! Were the Kennedy's such supermen that they needed two people to shoot them dead when us mere mortals would only need one??!!
I've just read in the paper recently Shirhan Shirhan's lawyer still is pedling that line as Shirhan is yet again up for parole hearing. I think it is a forgone conclusion that he'll never see the outside again.
If anyone doesn't like that bald fact then I suggest you go to your local library and take out books on Kennedy, or go and online and buy them. I have!! There is an absoltue wealth of material written on Kennedy I assure you!! And I reckon anyone who reads enough will come away shaking their head at Stone's bit of historical travesty.
Kennedy wasn't he squeakiestly clean of presidents, his father was a bully and a man I heartily dislike. But for all JFK's faults I don't think his memory deserved to be dragged through the mud like this. Believe me the Kennedy's dirty washing, and skeletons in the closet, have all been well and truely enough exposed without having to resort to slander.
This is one film I just will not watch. I Believe fully in freedom of speech but somehow this film treads a fine line between it and just sheer irresponsibility.
Oh yes! The article here is well written and my opinions in no way disparage the writer, it is only Stone have I the gripe with! This film done nothing more than fan flames that didn't in anyway need flaming.

Unknown said...

Samuel Wilson:

Thank you for the kind words. I agree that JFK might have been even more interesting if he kept things slightly more amorphous as you put it so well which is one of the reasons I regard NIXON so highly as I find the analogy of the political system to a "Beast" so fascinating. That's not to take away from LIBRA which is certainly a fine novel in its own right.


I certainly respect your opinion but let's not forget, JFK is not a documentary and Stone was very vocal about saying his film was a "countermyth" to what he believed was the "myth" of the Warren Commission Report.

Personally, I don't buy Oswald being the lone gunmen. There are just too many discrepencies, too many unknowns and contradictions that don't make him the only assassin. But hey, we will probably never know for sure. But people still love to speculate and theorize.

BRENT said...

Ha ha ha! I thought that might stir things up! But it wasn't my intention.
It really came down to me stating I will never watch it because I will just not buy into any conspiracy theories etc. The problem being for me with Stone's film is that it ignited a whole raft of books on the subject at a time when most Americans didn't believe or know about such theories. I watched a superb documentary in 2003 on the actual 40th anniversary day that stated before Stone's film this was the case.
I haven't read a single one of them either and never will. But you have made a valid point as it has caused many people to speculate and if they wish to continue on doing so it is up to them. And possibly we'll never know the truth if there is actually a truth to know. For me the more theories that abound then the simpler it becomes to know who shot JFK. The truth is stranger than fiction after all!
I could write forever on Kennedy as I do have a real interset in him, but I don't wish to say other people don't have a right to their opinions on the event.
The Warren Commission was flawed but hey they were under immense pressure and it isn't everyday a president was shot. It was unfortunately rushed at a time of deep shock within American society and I think this affected its final form, and this is where so many of the ambiguities etc come from.
For me at the end of the day it was a sad day because for all of Kennedy's failings he was still a living breathing person with a family, and was at the time a popular president world wide.
Hope that clears it up a bit...I don't want any controversy over a controversy!!

Unknown said...


Heh! No sweat. I certainly didn't take any offense. The JFK assassination certainly creates passionate discussions regardless of what theory you believe in. I find it interesting. I don't know if you heard but Stephen King has written a fictionalized account of the assassination that is coming out later this year. Supposedly it is clocking at 1,000 pages!

Neil Fulwood said...

J.D., thanks again for contributing this piece, and good to see some passionate discussion in the comments field.

Funnily enough, I was reading about the forthcoming Stephen King novel on the author's website last night. Sounds like a "Twilight Zone" kind of approach to the material ... with, as you mentioned, a typically weighty page count.

BRENT said...

No I hadn't heard that at all. Personally not a big King fan so want be disapointed in missing it too much!

Unknown said...

Neil Fulwood:

You are more than welcome. Happy to help out. It should be intersting to see what King has to say on the topic. My curiousity is definitely piqued.