historical event as the Other: the JFK assassination



Documentaries such as Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North which distinctly extend into ethnographic representation traditionally approach their subject as the Other. The dichotomy between the cultures of Flaherty and Nanook is emphasized and the relationship quickly becomes hierarchical. One of the most satisfying things about watching Nanook is that we as an audience are put in the place of explorers or investigators, assuming one of the roles of the filmmaker (Barnouw 40).* Flaherty signals us when Nanook is almost finished building an igloo, and we then discover the final step is to carve a window out of its wall. Flaherty also underscores the differences between us and him (the self and Other) when he prompts Nanook to act like he is utterly taken aback by the presence of a phonograph, when in fact he has already been accustomed to movie cameras for months. Nanook's place in the film is defined by his relationships to Flaherty and consequently to the film's audience. He is explained by being set apart from our culture; Nanook is a discourse of the Other between Flaherty and ourselves rather than a self-defining statement by Nanook (Nichols, Representing Reality).*

Historical representation in film traditionally functions in the same way that Flaherty's ethnography does. Both ethnographic and historical film propose to erase some of the obvious boundaries between the audience and the subject (the Other) by providing information to illuminate the Other. JFK frames the historical event in a narrative structure with which we are comfortable from our exposure to mainstream fiction films. In this film, historic fact becomes increasingly confused and commingled with the fictive elements of the plot. Throughout the movie, documentary footage of the assassination and the autopsy is interspersed with staged reproductions.



Image of Kennedy's autopsy


Stone's recreation of the autopsy



The desire to physically illuminate the Other does not, however, bring us any closer to it. The film's apparent erasure of boundaries between the viewer and historical event is a myth, an effect of the investigative style of film making. Although the setting of JFK places its hypothesis in the years shortly after the assassination, the arguments presented by the movie are more reflective of Stone's position in a cultural and political context now well removed from that of 1963. The historical event is treated from the point of view of the present (The historian has the benefit of retrospect) and is presented in our terms rather than its own. Thus, relationships that begin to appear between the viewer and the Other, the historical event, are a construction of the filmmaker's creative process. For example, when watching Kevin Costner unraveling the mysteries before us, we sense that we are a part of this history unfolding. In the final courtroom scene, at some level we become a part of the jury - set up by Costner's speech (directed more to us in order to advance the plot than to the jury) and by cinematographic techniques such as point of view shots which visually put us in the jury box.





We are not put in the position to judge Clay Shaw, however. If anything is on trial in the closing 40 minutes of this film, it is Stone's conspiracy theory which must withstand our scrutiny. Still, Stone actively involves us in the narrative of the film and in the reconstruction of history through his paranoid cinematographic techniques. But despite these fabricated relationships between audience and film, we are really no closer to the historical event than we are to Nanook and his "family" (who were essentially actors unrelated to him).

The inconspicuous separation of Self and Other is also paradoxically fed by our repeated exposure to images of the event, whether historical document or fictive creations. Well into Costner's closing statements to the jury, he plays the Zapruder footage for the jury that we have already seen again and again. This time, the climax of the action (when the final bullet strikes Kennedy in the head) is replayed several times under the actor's synchronized incantation, "Back and to the left…"



JFK, 1992 — 34 sec. clip



We are forced to confront this arresting sequence which simultaneously repulses us and yet makes us more familiar with the image. Costner's (and Stone's) intent seems to be that this exposure/illumination will bring us closer to an understanding of the truth. This effect is entirely cinematic, however. The film now becomes fictive on more than one level: Costner has edited and manipulated the footage in order to play that two-second sequence repeatedly. On top of this, Stone has interspersed his fabricated clips with the Zapruder footage. The fictive cinematic effect is, of course, performed more for the viewer of JFK than for a viewer in the courtroom. Instead of arriving at a convincing understanding of what happened, we are left with a fictional monologue about the distanced Other. Throughout the movie, and particularly in this climax, JFK conflates the historical event of the Kennedy assassination and the historical evidence of the event. The aura of the event is destroyed by this mechanical reproduction and repetition, and historical reality becomes embodied in the filmic simulation itself.

Thinking of cinematic representations of history as discourses in the Other is useful because it illustrates some of the ways in which such modes of representation can be problematic. If JFK sets up a hierarchical and uncommunicative relationship between us and the Kennedy assassination itself, then it seems to place too great an emphasis on the past as an independent, inert identity. The historical event itself is fixed in the past, but a web of implication persists from past to present to future. By distancing the present (Us) from the historical referent (Other), is there a danger that the representation is too far removed from reality? This is a question that seems pertinent in light of a film like Errol Morris' rough cut of Mr. Death/Fred Leuchter in which an expert in capitol punishment technology essentially testifies that Nazis couldn't have executed prisoners in gas chambers.