Now at Video Stores: J.F.K.’s Exploding Head

I thought I was through with the Kennedy assassination, certainly with the Zapruder film, the assassination’s cinematic Shroud of Turin. You know the Zapruder film, don’t you-the 26-second home movie that dress manufacturer Abraham Zapruder shot with his 8-millimeter camera in Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963. A film that culminates with a profoundly shocking shot of President John F. Kennedy’s head being blown into a bloody mist. Blurry nth-generation copies of the film which served as a time clock for the Warren Commission’s lone-gunman analysis of the assassination-and as proof of a multi-gunman conspiracy to critics of the Warren Commission-have circulated for nearly three decades now since New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison featured it in his failed prosecution of an alleged J.F.K. conspirator. It’s been analyzed and reanalyzed by subsequent investigations and featured prominently once again as the concluding centerpiece of Oliver Stone’s JFK , which re-enacted the Garrison trial showing. But it’s never been commercially available for home viewing by ordinary citizens. Until now.

When I heard that the Zapruder family was releasing for sale in video stores a digitally remastered, computer-enhanced version of the 26-second film in a 45-minute-long quasi-documentary about the making of the film and its role in history, I dismissed it at first as more of a cultural phenomenon than a historical one. It somehow seemed closer in spirit to the Pamela Anderson-Tommy Lee bootlegged homemade sex tapes. Celebrities fucking, celebrities dying, there’s a market now for any explosive moment in a celebrity’s life, right?

Did you know, by the way-I think this is an amazing, unremarked and emblematic cultural development-that the Pamela-Tommy Lee sex video, supposedly stolen from a safe in their bedroom and subsequently downloaded onto various Internet sites-is now available not just on celebrity porn Web sites, but as a featured presentation on the in-room video menus at distinguished hotels like the venerable Drake in Chicago and the Viking in Newport, R.I.? This seems like a strange new development in commodifying celebs for a celeb-obsessed society. How would you feel if your illicitly obtained intimate couplings were on offer next to the minibar for tired traveling salesmen to gawk at?

But I digress, although only to emphasize that I’d initially dismissed the Zapruder film as a similar kind of phenomenon: a home movie become histori-porn. Like the Pamela-Tommy tape, it occupies a problematic terrain between public document and private trauma. (Call me crazy, but I’ve always felt a man’s brain being blown to bits is a private matter.) Cultural-studies types might even find some significance in the fact that both narratives build up to explosive moments of spurting tissue, one violently sexual, one pruriently violent.

The packaging of the new Zapruder videotape didn’t exactly allay my anxieties on the question of its appropriateness for commercialization; it borders on the sensational and exploitative. The cassette box tells us that the tape (which I paid $19.95 for) is officially entitled Image of an Assassination: A New Look at the Zapruder Film . And then goes on to proclaim that it “Includes a Never-Before-Seen Version of the Kennedy Assassination!”-which is a bit of a stretch. “Never-before-seen version” suggests startling new revelations are to be found-perhaps a glimpse of J. Edgar Hoover in a dress on the grassy knoll. But in fact the “never before seen” material is merely the strip of film into which the sprocket holes have been punched, the film between the sprocket holes which in the past has been cut away in processing for viewing as it is in all commercially processed sprocket-pocked movie film.

I’ve looked at the never-before-seen, between-the-sprockets material and although someone is sure to come forward identifying C.I.A. master spy James Angleton or Alger Hiss among the sidewalk bystanders the sprocket strip captured, it seems at first glance to be innocuous-nothing that would in itself constitute a “new version” of the assassination.

And then there is the blurb on the cassette box from a guy named Richard Trask, identified as “Author, Pictures of the Pain “-a scary-sounding title if there ever was one. Mr. Trask tells us the Zapruder film is “the most famous motion picture sequence ever shot in history.”

I found myself thinking, Gone With the Wind , “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”? I’m thinking, “Play it again, Sam.” The baby carriage on the Odessa steps in The Battleship Potemkin ? The “Turn it up to 11” sequence in This Is Spinal Tap ? The Hindenberg going up in flames? Hitler dancing a jig after accepting the French surrender in the forest of Compiègne? Maybe he’s right, it is at least arguable that this is the most famous, certainly the most multiply significant piece of movie film in history.

For one thing, it has had a crucial forensic significance beyond Gone With the Wind or any fictional piece of film. And it certainly possesses a unique cultural significance. You could say it is almost single-handedly responsible for creating conspiracy-theory culture, which began with skepticism over the lone-gunman, single-bullet theory advanced by the Warren Commission and spread like a stain to undermine confidence in any and all official stories about public catastrophes from the death of Diana to Vince Foster and T.W.A. Flight 800.

How could one 26-second piece of film do that? Because when you watch it, when you watch the crucial head shot in Frame 313, when you see a bullet blow a hole in J.F.K.’s skull, slamming his head backward, causing a cloud of bloody brain tissue to form in the air, it is impossible for the untutored eye not to believe that the shot came from the front. J.F.K.’s head looks like it’s being blown back by the force of the bullet: You seem to see the front of his head explode on impact.

But the official story, the Warren Commission story, the story subsequently accepted even in the skeptical re-examination of the case by the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978, was that the shots that hit the President were from behind , where Lee Harvey Oswald was perched. Naked viewing of the Zapruder film, however, strongly suggests that there was someone else firing-from in front.

Yes, there were complicated scientific explanations why what appeared to be a head shot from the front was really a head shot from the back. The House Select Committee, which at the last minute affirmed a conspiracy (based on disputed Dictabelt recordings of police radio pickup of a purported fourth gunshot from a second location), nonetheless presented both autopsy and ballistics evidence to prove to its satisfaction that the apparent slamming back of the head on the Zapruder film was the result of a neuromuscular spasmodic reaction. Later, computer-enhanced analysis of the motion on the film seemed to prove that there had been an initial forward motion of the head in response to a shot from the back but that it was followed by a violent counter-reaction-familiar to forensic medical specialists-in which the wounded neuromuscular system jerked the head back.

Still, for some, these explanations were not sufficient to make them disbelieve what their eyes seemed to show them. To watch the Zapruder film, and then be told by scientists that what seems like a bullet slamming the head back is a shot from behind, is to be put in the position of the wife who catches her husband in bed with another woman; he denies he’s cheating and demands, “Who are you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?”

Whether or not the powerful impression is factually correct, the film strip left an indelible impression on the collective unconscious of Americans, and became the emotional source of conspiracy consciousness. But this is somewhat different from calling the Zapruder film, as the cassette box does, “A Collector’s Item for All Americans!” I don’t know, somehow I hear in that boast the rhetoric of the Franklin Mint’s “collectible” commemorative plate ads. In fact, if it is “a collectible for all Americans,” why not a Franklin Mint commemorative plate featuring a lovingly detailed hand-painted rendition of Frame 313, “The Head Shot”: Hand-painted by skilled Slovakian porcelain artists, this lovingly detailed rendition of the gunshot that blew out the brains of our beloved President is brought to you in a limited edition signed and numbered by the artist. No more than 85,000 will be produced, after which the original plates will be destroyed to insure that its value as a collectible will rise over the decades to come. This is a unique work of art the Franklin Mint believes your family will cherish forever for its educational and artistic value.

O.K., I was a little cynical before I even played the tape. And I must admit my skepticism was not allayed by the tin-eared bad taste of the voice-over narrative’s opening line, which describes the Zapruder film as capturing “a seminal moment in American history.” Please, “seminal” is just wrong here, or at least badly timed when the Monica Lewinsky dress has brought us a far more literally seminal moment in American Presidential history. Pam Anderson and Tommy Lee-that’s a seminal moment, the blood and brains spurting from J.F.K.’s skull-let’s not call that seminal, O.K.?

Nonetheless, after this opening gaffe, Image of an Assassination began to win me over with its low-key, non-sensational, serious-mindedness. It might be too much to call it scholarly, but it does do something refreshing in a realm-J.F.K. assassination speculation-in which few pieces of evidence are given a solid grounding in fact. It carefully traces the provenance, gives us the history of this history-making piece of film, follows it from the hands of Abraham Zapruder into the custody of the Secret Service, to the film processing plants that copied and developed it, to the vaults of Time-Life Inc., which bought the rights to it, to the Warren Commission, which scrutinized and relied on it, to the courtroom of Jim Garrison, who subpoenaed it and distributed bootleg copies, to the assassination conspiracy theorists who circulated it and (on Good Night America , hosted by Geraldo Rivera) first broadcast it to a national television audience. And finally to its current resting place in temperature- and humidity-controlled storage in the National Archives, where the digitally remastered, computer-enhanced version was made for this tape.

As the tape traced the trajectory of the Zapruder film in our national consciousness, I tried to retrace the trajectory of the film in my own thinking about the assassination. I seem to recall that back in the 70’s when the Zapruder film was first shown in public, I tended to ignore it or consider it irrelevant because back then I was already convinced there had to be a conspiracy and so purported proof of a second shooter on film wouldn’t add much to what I felt I knew already.

And then, during the 80’s, after the House Select Committee on Assassinations fairly convincingly refuted the dramatic impression of a shot from in front that the Zapruder film gave, after frustration with the exaggeration and distortions of conspiracy theorists led me to rethink the question, I came to believe the real mystery was not whether Oswald did it but why he did it, and at whose behest: If he didn’t have fellow shooters that day in Dealey Plaza, did he have confederates in the netherworld he inhabited, or was it only his internal demons prompting him? Which once again, for different reasons, made the Zapruder film relatively irrelevant to what I thought was the real issue, the mystery of Oswald’s internal motivation.

And so it wasn’t until I saw the Image of an Assassination tape that I really looked at it, really examined it closely for the first time. And discovered one way of looking at it that they don’t show you on the tape.

Not that they don’t show you enough alternate ways on their own. First they show you the original, then the original in slow motion. Then they show you the original with the between-the-sprockets material added, then they show you that in slow motion. Then they give you a reframed slow-motion version that keeps President Kennedy and his head in the center of the frame. And finally they give you a zoomed-in version of the Kennedy head re-edit in slow motion so you get maximum in-your-face focus, excruciating slow-motion exposure to the exploding head.

These are all pretty painful to watch, disturbing on a number of levels. While intellectually I may be convinced by the scientific testimony that what appears to be a shot from the front is really a shot from the rear, my lying eyes still find it hard to accept. I don’t know if we’ll ever know the whole truth about the Kennedy assassination, I think Jack Ruby may have cheated us out of that, although even if Oswald had lived I wonder if he could have told us what complex of inner demons and outside influences brought him to do it.

But I do know I’ve found a better way to look at the Zapruder film, better than all six versions on the Image of an Assassination tape. The better way is backward. Run it in reverse. Backward, the invisible bullet zooms back to the assassin’s gun. Backward you get to see the cloud of blood and brain condense and disappear back into J.F.K.’s head. Backward you get to see Jackie Kennedy crawling back from the trunk of the limousine where she’d lunged to retrieve a bloody fragment of her husband’s skull. Backward you see the two of them re-emerge from the behind the Dealey Plaza street sign (which blocked our view of the first shot) into another happier realm in time. Backward you see them smiling and waving to the crowd, waving to us from that lost past. I’ve looked at the Zapruder tape from both sides now, and believe me, backward is better. Now at Video Stores: J.F.K.’s Exploding Head