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“From the Streets of Dallas”:
The Absent Centre of Oliver Stone’s JFK

First of all, let me ask you a question: How do we mourn?

Any first reaction to a tragic event, be it confined to our own family or of public interest, is certainly some form of shock. That shock catches us unawares, bad news does not sink in immediately, rather we are swept off our feet, entirely shattered so to speak.

This state is then often followed by total disbelief of the terrible news—the loss of a beloved person or the announcement of a fatal illness. We therefore desperately cling to some notion of there being a misunderstanding, a mix-up. We simply refuse to believe.

Disbelief then inevitably triggers off anger, aggression even, at anybody or anything that is at hand – that can be held responsible for the loss we have to endure.

I believe that these stages of mourning also happened to the American people when they heard of their president John F. Kennedy being shot. These stages account for the numerous books, articles and endless private investigations—and most importantly for the post-assassination trauma America has been absorbed in ever since November 22, 1963.

With JFK Oliver Stone tried to summarise the research on the assassination that was done in the 1960s to the 1980, or so he claims. It was in December 1991 with the release of JFK that a  debate was stirred up with a force it had not known since 1979, the year of the report of the House Select Committee on Assassination. Stone was consequently attacked and dismissed by the American media, CBS, The New York Times, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Critics held the view that Stone was mixing documentary footage with hypothetical footage into a seamless flow in order to lead his audience astray, in that they cannot distinguish fact from fiction. Thus Stone took up every opportunity to fervently defend his movie and his work, which he himself coined as that of a cinematic historian. On such occasions he insisted on presenting ‘countermyth’ to the official myth of the Warren Commission report. Much can be said about the media’s reception of JFK as well as of Stone’s defending it, yet I thought it more appropriate to concentrate on the primary medium—the film—for its discussion.

 

Does JFK fit into any genre? Undoubtedly it is a historical film in that the story is presented in a filmic style of visual and aural patterns that make the viewer believe he looks directly at reality. Another typical element of historical films is that the story is about a heroic individual—Jim Garrison and his fight for good against evil in the interest of humanity, which gives the movie a strong moral message and emotional tone. Moreover, JFK interweaves documentary and fictional footage which makes it a docudrama—and along with that, a target for criticism.

JFK tells the story of former New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) who tries to prove New Orleans business tycoon Clay Shaw’s (Tommy Lee Jones) involvement in a conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy. The film is based on Jim Garrison’s On the Trail of the Assassins and Jim Marrs’ Crossfire: The Plot that Killed Kennedy. Exercising poetic license Stone created some fictional characters, including Willie O’Keefe (Kevin Bacon), a gay prostitute establishing the link between Clay Shaw and David Ferrie (Joe Pesci). One might argue that these inventions, along with others like Garrison’s portrayal of a family man, are driven by the commercial and narrative needs of the form, providing continuity and order—elements generally lacking in genuine events.

In order to analyse some selected scenes and shots it is worth mentioning that the movie received two Academy Awards—best screenplay and  best cinematography. One might speculate about the Academy’s motives for assigning such highly prestigious a prize—especially in these categories—bearing in mind that JFK, and subsequently its director, stirred up such great controversy. Quite ironically,  the average age of the Academy members is way past 50, an attribute they share with the majority of the anti-conspiracy theorists.

 

The paramount question of this discussion is that of the title itself—“JFK.” I shall have the pleasure of keeping you in an agony of suspense since the crucial scene that actually underlines the discussion of an absent centre will be analysed at the very end. The first eight minutes are actually sequences the film has become famous  or, depending on your attitude, criticised for.
 

For the first couple of seconds the audience is exposed to a voice-over even before seeing any image, i.e. even before the actual film starts. This lasts only a few seconds, then scenes of actual newsreel footage in black and white are interspersed with Stone’s assembled footage, altering in quick succession so that the audience is led to believe they witness ‘objective’ history displayed on screen. The voice-over accompanying the pictures or shots seems to be that of a commentator talking about reality, judging from the intonation, which is rather flat, or speech, which is rather rapid. Here the score must not be neglected: military music underlines the newsreel footage, and as soon as private pictures of John F. Kennedy are shown, violins take over, marking a sharp contrast to the marching music in order to give the whole sequence a gentle touch. This is actually a very subtle means of influencing, if not manipulating, the audience which is totally absorbed in the depiction of a heroic, beautiful man who promised to usher an era of change, who saved the world in the Cuba crisis, who addressed civil rights questions and who speaks about ‘peace.’ Moreover, we witness Kennedy playing with his family, the perfect man, an embodiment of the New Frontier. Keep these sequences in mind for later reference.

 

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The next scene, still rendered in black and white, is a woman being thrown out of a moving car. She seems to be mentally ill, so she is brought to hospital where she talks about a conspiracy to kill the President. The next few shots are newsreel footage of November 22, showing Kennedy and his wife on their first station on their trip to Texas. Here the pace of the film seems to accelerate, the shots getting shorter and shorter. Then they arrive at the airport, they get in the car and the motorcade starts its fatal drive down the streets of Dallas.  Shots in black and white interrupt these scenes—in one of them an epileptic apparently has a fit and is driven off with the ambulance car. The frame turns to the motorcade again. Stone uses the Zapruder film to maximum advantage here: The real Kennedy on his final motorcade ride. People cheer. The president waves at onlookers. They wave back. The car slows. Then things change forever. A sudden, abrupt rupture stirs up the audience. It does not hear gunshots—but a sound resembling a picture being taken, a picture shot. Doves fly away, obviously frightened by the sound. What sound though? Stone leaves it open. Then a short pause. This is followed by a television frame—the CBS bulletin. It is high time Stone introduced his visible hero—Jim Garrison. The next sequence shows him in his office, seated. He is dressed all in white, his shirt, his trousers—as we are about to learn—his tie, his waistcoat, surrogating this man has a clean slate. One of his staff members tells him the news which shatters him obviously. Both rush to a bar with a TV set. If Garrison is not yet established the film’s visible hero he will be now: Watching the CBS bulletin he fights with tears when he bursts out “There is still a chance dammit. C’mon Jack, pull through.” This is followed by the commentator’s voice :”President Kennedy died.” The camera moves into a close-up of Garrison, immediately followed by an African-American woman displayed on the TV screen, crying for the President, while at the other side of the bar one obvious Kennedy critic claps his hands. The next shot is an extreme close-up of Garrison, exclaiming :”God, I’m ashamed to be an American today.”

These sequences are material for understanding the role Garrison is about to play from now on. He is the lone seeker for truth, defying anything that comes in his way. Stone has introduced his visible hero on the stage. This sequence, especially the start, touches numerous discussion points, the most important of which shall be dealt with after viewing the third scene.

 

            The second sequence we are about to focus on shows one aspect of Stone’s much praised artistic talent of skilful film assembly. Here Stone manages very effectively to force the audience into believing that what they watch is ‘objective.’ What exactly did you see? And when? Whose perspective did you get? Why? These questions are absolutely material for trying to pin down the director’s intention, which leads me directly to another question: What is point of view (pov) in film terms? One definition of point of view is that it designates the angle of vision and the perspective conveyed by the camera eye.  According to this, the viewer is certain of the scene being rendered in the so called ‘omniscient’ point of view, since the camera frame does not move as if it was the character’s head. We are exposed to people talking—to be sure at different time levels due to the flashback technique—yet clearly the camera merely functions as ‘neutral’ observer. What does this technique want to convey? Should the viewer believe that what he witnesses is ‘real’, ‘authentic’ as depicted by an omniscient point of view?

Timothy Corrigan discusses “point of view” adding the dimension of ‘subjective perspective’:

Notice if the story is told mostly from an objective point of view or from the subjective perspective of a person. Ask yourself in what ways the point of view is determining what you see. Does it limit or control your vision in any way? (Corrigan 1998:44)

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With this definition in mind it becomes clear that what we have just seen was the subjective perspective of Clay Shaw. Notice how the audience hears the doorbell even before the flashback shot sets in. Even though this flashback mirrors the character’s memory of events, the camera re-creating his own subjective point of view, the frame is still that of an objective or omniscient point of view. This flashback technique is used at endless occasions in JFK, always following the same pattern.

 

g_jfk4.jpg (44906 Byte)Finally, let me come to the paramount point of this presentation. As we have come to realise Oliver Stone’s JFK works on many different levels, pulling all the artistic stops as it were. This craftsmanship reaches a climax with Garrison’s courtroom speech, an emotional appeal to the jury and to the audience to render their own verdict. Interestingly, the real Garrison admits in his book that one of his biggest flaws as an attorney, and of this trial, was his inability to deliver emotional speeches—obviously one additional aspect that did not fit the Hollywood concept. In this scene you will see Garrison pleading with the cracking of his voice not to forget “your dying king”. Most strikingly, towards the end of his speech he addresses the individual. The camera movement speaks for itself , it moves upward and at a high angle takes an extreme close-up of Garrison, telling the audience: “It’s up to you.” He does not say “It’s up to US.” He wants you, the individual, to take charge, to make up your mind about what happened. This is the point where we have to ask :Why did Stone call his film JFK? When clearly—is it really that obvious?—the story is that of Garrison.

French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s concept of identity ties in with what Stone wanted to accomplish here. Derrida believes that words are never the things they name—in our case the title “JFK”—but they are only arbitrarily associated with those things. Stone takes up this concept, and from the very beginning challenges us with only three letters : J  F  K —notice the missing dots usually common with abbreviations. “JFK” does not mean anything—nothing is itself by virtue of its being, unless it is set in opposition to something, as Derrida and Saussure suggest. Therefore, the complex “JFK,” made up of three letters, does not have an absolute identity. Stone openly admits making full use of this philosophy. He challenges us

 

“What is reality? Question it. Think for yourself. You never know. Everything is subject to manipulation—your life, country, murder [. . .]. What is real?”  [Oliver Stone, Interview at the UC Berkeley,

April 17,1997]

 

 

 

In very dramatically putting the words “It’s up to you” into Garrison’s mouth who distinctly addresses the audience, Stone wants us to give both the story and the title their meaning.

 

  IT’S UP TO YOU Nr. 1: YOU give the three letters JFK meaning, you paint your own portrait of JFK.

    IT’S UP TO YOU Nr. 2: Think for YOURself. YOU have seen the film. YOU have generated YOUR own meaning. Now make up YOUR mind.

 

Stone draws the curtain while at the same time  setting the stage for us, for our interpretation. He avoids taking an open position by means of shifting it onto us. But wasn’t it Stone who for 188 minutes was trying to depict his own version of somebody who is not even alive at that time? Blatantly speaking, images of someone’s—Stone’s—JFK haunt us throughout these 188 minutes, filling the absent centre of his absent hero with images, ‘real’ images. Interestingly, Stone had initially planned to have Kennedy’s ghost appear to Garrison. Instead, Kennedy was the only figure in the film played by himself, since any actor would have reduced the force of this ghostly presence—or absence—in JFK.

 

Sandra Renner

 

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