The Enduring Paranoia Within the Image

Louis Menand is a professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and contributing editor to the New York Review of Books

Abraham Zapruder, the most famous cinematographer in U.S. political history, was a Dallas dressmaker. He shot his remarkable movie, on Nov. 23, 1963, using a wind-up Bell & Howell eight-millimeter camera with a telephoto lens. The movie is 26 seconds long, and as of last week, you can purchase a copy of it, along with 40 minutes of filler, for $19.98 at your local video store. The original footage (or inchage) sits in the National Archives. It has been declared the property of the United States government, which is offering Zapruder’s heirs $3 million in compensation. The heirs (who hold an interest in the video release) are asking $18 million.

The numbers may seem arbitrary--$3 million or $18 million for two cents worth of celluloid?--but there is a sense in which the object is priceless; for the film has arguably had a more profound effect on American life than the incident it records. It is responsible for much of what we know about President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, but it is also responsible for keeping alive suspicions about many of the things we don’t know. The knowledge it gives us has not always been good to have.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Aug. 2, 1998 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 2, 1998 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 2 Opinion Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
An article about the Zapruder movie of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in last week’s Opinion section misstated the date of the event. The correct date is Nov. 22, 1963.

Zapruder originally sold the movie to Life magazine, to whose representatives he is said to have expressed concern that the movie might end up being shown in tawdry Times Square movie houses. (Today, of course, there are no tawdry Times Square movie houses, but videotape probably counts as the moral equivalent.) Life published selected stills from the film on two occasions in the 1960s; bootlegs were prevalent by the early 1970s, and the whole 26 seconds were finally broadcast on ABC in 1975, the year Time Inc. returned the rights to the Zapruder family.

Zapruder’s movie is famous because it records a famous event. But it is also a landmark in the history of cinema, for it stands two traditional assumptions about the medium on their heads. One is the notion that film, as a mechanically reproduced art form, lacks the intangible attribute of uniqueness, the “aura,” of painting. The original “Mona Lisa,” according to this view, radiates an aesthetic power missing from reproductions; but one copy of “The Godfather” is as good as another. This is obviously not true of the Zapruder film--or why would the government be willing to pay $18 million, or even $3 million, for something it can rent for $2 a night (plus a tip for delivery)?

The Zapruder original has acquired huge cultural potency. The reality of the Kennedy assassination is somehow imagined to be encoded in its very molecules, awaiting the day when a forensic genius will discover the celluloid equivalent of DNA and extract from the film the indisputable truth about Lee Harvey Oswald, the magic bullet and the grassy knoll. The theory that mechanically reproduced objects lack aura is plainly wrong in any case. People line up to stare at the baseball Roger Maris hit for his 61st home run, though it looks exactly like any other baseball they have ever seen--just as the moon rocks are visually indistinguishable from chunks of concrete produced by taking a jackhammer to a sidewalk, and the Shroud of Turin, from every other point of view, is a piece of fabric with a stain on it.


The other assumption the Zapruder movie explodes is that film, compared to, say, writing, is an unambiguous reflection of reality. On the one hand, the film is the basis for nearly everything we know about the key seconds of the assassination. It is because of the Zapruder film that we know how fast the president’s limousine was moving (an average speed of 11.2 miles per hour), how far the president’s head was from the business end of Oswald’s rifle (265.3 feet) and the angle of the path along which the bullets traveled (15 21').

About the things we really want to know, on the other hand, the movie is silent. The Zapruder film reflects reality, but almost the entire controversy about the Kennedy assassination revolves around the question of which reality it is. Does it show the president being struck by a bullet fired from behind (as appears to be happening in frame 312) or from in front (the way it seems in frame 313)? Or were bullets fired from both directions? It depends on how you look at it.

In 1992, the American Bar Assn. staged a mock trial of Oswald and asked a firm called Failure Analysis Associates to prepare a computer-enhanced version of the Zapruder film, tracing, from the original images, the possible trajectories of the bullets that struck Kennedy. The firm prepared two versions. One “proved” Oswald was the sole gunman; the other “proved” he was not. The trial ended in a hung jury. The Zapruder film is the Rosetta Stone of Kennedy assassination theory: No one knows how to translate it. It is as dark and indeterminate as a modernist poem.

Historians often figure the Kennedy assassination as a rupture in the American psyche, an event that shattered a certain glassy postwar faith and self-confidence and plunged the country into a long slough of division, doubt and paranoia. The paranoia is supposed to have been fed by a general conviction that the Warren Commission was wrong, that there were forces at work in the assassination that the government (or other, more shadowy and terrible interests) was determined to conceal. In 1975, the year the Zapruder movie was first shown publicly, a CBS poll indicated that 46% of all Americans believed the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and the attempted assassination of George C. Wallace were connected. (And how do we know that those “moon rocks” are not just chunks of concrete?)

But there is a way in which the seed of paranoia was not the assassination, but Zapruder’s movie of the assassination--not the event, but the image of the event. For without the film, most conspiracy theories would have been consumed by their own vapors long ago. No one would wonder how Oswald could have got off so many shots in so many seconds, because there would be no record of the shots or the seconds. But there it is, in living Kodacolor: the president’s head jerking forward in frame 312, and the president’s head jerking backward in frame 313.

In the unrecorded 1/18th of a second the secret history of the Cold War lies hidden. And now we can sit on our couches with a cold drink and stare into the abyss forever.