PERSPECTIVE ON COMMUNICATIONS : Last Gasp of the Gutenbergs : Film techniques go right to the viewer’s brain. This rattles the print media, as if their storytelling is sacred.


In his various advertisements of himself, Oliver Stone never hesitates to embrace the more extreme modalities of new communications techniques. As “JFK,” his most cinematographically dazzling production, so well demonstrates, he has mastered them brilliantly, even frighteningly.

Stone is quite direct about his intention and his ability to massage our minds in whatever directions he chooses. “What’s interesting about the movie,” he says, is that “it’s one of the fastest movies. . . . It’s like splinters to the brain. We have 2,500 cuts in there, I would imagine. We had 2,000 camera setups. We’re assaulting the senses . . . in a sort of a new-wave technique. We admire MTV editing technique and we make no bones about using it. We want to . . . get to the subconscious . . . and certainly seduce the viewer into a new perception of the reality . . . (of) what occurred in Texas that day.”

Clearly Stone will give no quarter to those who would guide us perhaps more gently and more rationally through the morass of speculation and questionable assumption that surrounds any matter of historical interpretation. The debate still echoing over “JFK” is not limited to how our young President was murdered in Dallas in November, 1963, nor to the role that the film suggests was played there--and thereafter--by the military-industrial complex that the more seasoned Dwight Eisenhower had warned of only three years earlier.


The current controversy is really Marshall McLuhan revisited: Stone’s genius as a film-maker versus the followers of Gutenberg. Why? Because “JFK,” like his earlier “Platoon” and “Born on the 4th of July,” is so effective in spinning its tale of deception and conspiracy, in conveying its not-quite-provable speculations about the end of Camelot. It very much threatens a media way of life in which first print and then its linear offshoots, like television news, presented the world and interpreted it for us without peer or challenge.

The print media and their electronic news allies long dominated our sense of past and present, their protestations that they merely report the facts notwithstanding. But now there is this new presence, this new “historian,” a far more effective and convincing one at that, and one fully determined to have his own way with the pictures inside our heads. As far as the lords of print are concerned, he is not welcome. His mind-boggling special effects, his rapid cuts and purposeful edits, his musical up-beats and down-beats, his endless flashbacks and flash-forwards, all play with our heads, mold our perceptions, so much more effectively than the more linear media ever did.

The virulent press war against the upstart director might well be taken as something of a death rattle, a tell-tale sign of fearful recognition that through their surround-sound and big-screen visuals, and particularly through “faction” (their deplorable mix of fact and fiction), Stone and his fellow celluloid/video Pied Pipers will become our nation’s leading storytellers. They will set our national agenda, interpret our national past, determine our national future, just as the scribblers themselves had done until these last sputtering days of the 20th Century.

Stone’s critics are close to the mark in their concern that Academy Awards rather than Pulitzer Prizes may soon become our accolades to the new “historian.” Which may explain why efforts to mute Stone’s message lack only the hemlock, and why the critics persist in raising doubts about the film-maker himself to counter doubts that his brilliantly designed film raises about the Warren Commission’s single-assassin theory. Writ so compellingly large on film, Stone’s speculations are understandably anathema to those who themselves created, or at least embraced or repeated, the official version.

Stone may indeed have made his most singular contribution to historical understanding through the very controversy that “JFK” has provoked. For with it he has helped undermine, perhaps once and for all, the naive and often dangerously misleading notion that, in whatever medium, the record of the past--anyone’s account of what happened then--can be other than a reflection of what one believes now. As historian Charles A. Beard noted, all recorded history is essentially an “act of faith”--what the purported historian (whether film-maker, academic or reporter) thinks of what someone else thought, saw, heard or believed. And if the doubts that “JFK” casts on what the press told us earlier challenge us to understand that the record of the past--and our journalistic accounts of the present--differ from the reality, then Stone will have served us even better than perhaps he intended.

The press lords’ concerns about the film-maker’s accuracy and integrity as chronicler of the President’s assassination could in fact prove quite beneficial. For fair’s fair, and in subjecting Stone’s work to so much critical scrutiny, the press may finally come to rigorously reexamine its own daily speculations masquerading as journalistic and historical “fact.” Demanding responsible use of his medium may, hopefully, command more responsible use of print and video.