This fascinating account examines how Abraham Zapruder's accidental footage of the Kennedy assassination has been transformed from documentary evidence to an aesthetic and cultural lodestone.
As the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination approaches, the traumatic aspects of the tragedy continue to haunt our perceptions of the 1960s. One reason for this lies in the home movie of the incident filmed by Abraham Zapruder, a bystander who became one of the twentieth century's most important accidental documentarians.
The first book devoted exclusively to the topic, Zaprudered traces the journey of the film and its effect on the world's collective imagination. Providing insightful perspective as an observer of American culture, Norwegian media studies scholar Øyvind Vågnes begins by analyzing three narratives that are projections of Zapruder's images: performance group Ant Farm's video The Eternal Frame, Don DeLillo's novel Underworld, and an episode from Seinfeld. Subsequent topics he investigates include Dealey Plaza's Sixth Floor Museum, Zoran Naskovski's installation Death in Dallas, assassin video games, and other artifacts of the ways in which the footage has made a lasting impact on popular culture and the historical imagination. Vågnes also explores the role of other accidental documentarians, such as those who captured scenes of 9/11.
Zapruder's footage has never yielded a conclusive account of what happened in Dealey Plaza. Zaprudered thoroughly examines both this historical enigma and its indelible afterimages in our collective imagination.
2011 PROSE Awards, Honorable Mention from the American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scholarly ExcellencePeter C. Rollins Book Award Committee award
Popular Culture/American Culture Association
- Chapter One. Owning, Showing, Telling
- Chapter Two. Eternally Framed
- Chapter Three. Inside the Zapruder Museum
- Chapter Four. No Hugging, No Learning
- Chapter Five. Pleasing to the Eye
- Chapter Six. Death in Dallas
- Chapter Seven. Oswald's Window
- Chapter Eight. Traveling Images
During our negotiations, Zapruder said again and again how worried he was about possible exploitation of his 26 seconds of film. He told me about a dream he'd had the night before: He was walking through Times Square and came upon a barker urging tourists to step inside a sleazy theater to watch the President die on the big screen. The scene was so vivid it made Zapruder heartsick. Later, while testifying before the Warren Commission, which was investigating the assassination, he wept as the film was shown. "The thing would come every night," he said of the dream. "I wake up and see this."
—Richard B. Stolley, "Zapruder Rewound"
The motorcade turns onto Houston Street, and in the backseat of one of the cars sits President John F. Kennedy, smiling and waving to the crowds that have gathered along the road, his wife next to him. The car disappears behind a road sign, then appears again, and the president seems to be fumbling with his collar, clutching his throat, while Jackie Kennedy is watching with increasing attention. He glides slowly to the left, and then his upper body is jolted violently, his head exploding in a spurt of blood, and his wife crawls across the back of the car as a Secret Service man climbs up on it. She turns back and looks for a moment in the direction of the now slumped, partly invisible body, then the view is obstructed again by bushes and another road sign before we see the car speeding up, disappearing under the overpass.
When I awoke in my West End hotel room in Dallas, Texas, on the morning of November 22, 2003, and turned on the television set before getting out of bed, only a minute or two passed before I saw these images on the screen. I cannot recall precisely which channel I happened to be watching, but I remember switching for a few minutes and observing without surprise that the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination had made the headlines on a number of Saturday-morning shows, all running similar footage from the Kennedy years and the day of the assassination. It felt strange to see the motorcade turn again and again on Houston Street, knowing it had all happened only blocks from where I was staying.
On that day, forty years had passed since Kennedy was murdered in the city I had been visiting for half a week. In the course of those few days in Dallas, I found that what had at first been a strange and unfamiliar sensation—that of being in a city where all the major networks were present to cover an event—gradually came to feel routine. When I eventually saw a friend and myself on the screen, I observed it without any of the enthusiasm or excitement one usually feels at suddenly being caught on tape at the periphery of some television report. By that time, it had come to seem inevitable that our faces would end up being broadcast during that weekend. With cameras everywhere around us, I would have been surprised if we had not ended up being photographed or filmed at some point.
The first morning I arrived in Dealey Plaza, where Kennedy was shot, the area was almost empty. A few people were walking around and pointing up at the sixth-floor window of the former schoolbook depository building from which Lee Harvey Oswald had allegedly fired the rifle shots that killed the president. They took photographs of the building, of the giant X painted in the street at what is believed to be the exact spot where Kennedy was shot in the head, and of the picket fence from behind which one or more shots had been fired, according to numerous so-called conspiracy theorists. Two or three of the more dedicated of these had silently placed themselves in the area, offering videotapes and homemade publications for sale. To them, it was just another working day. One told me that three or four of them came to Dealey Plaza fairly regularly to spread their information. The traffic roared matter-of-factly down Elm Street and through the plaza, with the occasional driver smiling at what for her must have been a familiar sight: people on the curb mimicking the tilting movements of Kennedy's upper body as he was shot, eagerly pointing at and photographing the window, the mark in the street, the fence.
That same afternoon, when I returned to the site a few hours later, a woman had positioned a hotdog stand at the corner of Elm and Houston. A few more people had gathered. I had read in the newspapers that there would be several television specials on the assassination, but I was nevertheless surprised when I came back to the plaza the next day, Thursday, to see the impact of the arrival of the networks. The site had changed profoundly. With the coming of the television crews, larger numbers of people had arrived and were arriving. A section of the plaza and the parking lot of what is now the Sixth Floor Museum, located in the former Texas School Book Depository building, were closed off to accommodate television news trucks, all flashing the familiar logos of the major networks. That evening, I watched news reporters get their makeup on, prepare before cameras in the white light with notes scribbled on cards, and then report live. On the cover of the Metropolitan section of the Dallas Morning News the following day there was a color photograph of the ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, who had used the plaza as a backdrop for a report, with the schoolbook depository building behind him. In addition to Jennings, Dan Rather flew into town and found his way to the plaza. I had counted more than a dozen television specials dedicated to Kennedy and the assassination during the last few days. However, it was with the arrival of the crews and the well-known reporters that one got the feeling that an entire nation would be watching us, the crowds who, for various and widely different reasons, had gathered in Dealey Plaza forty years after a president was slain there.
When I left my hotel and walked down to the plaza on the morning of November 22, hundreds of people had gathered already. The entire area was closed to traffic. For a couple of hours, people poured into the plaza from all directions. The Dallas Morning News had reported the previous day that the entire nation was now focused on Dallas; several events were expected to "occur spontaneously"; others were planned and "sponsored by private groups." Local visitors seemed pleased to run into friends, people they had not seen for a while. Otherwise, people were standing around, not doing much except for one thing. All seemed to have cameras and were either photographing or filming. I have never seen such extensive recording. Families gathered on the curb in front of the mark in the road for a pose. The window, the fence, the pergola: people were positioning themselves, taking pictures, and filming, and as they did so, they were looking, gesturing, pointing. Television crews were reporting live. The whole site was steeped in nervous energy. Pictures were being discussed; pictures were being made.
There was one point in the plaza that seemed to attract particular attention that day. Hundreds of people climbed a small concrete abutment on the north hill of the plaza, halfway between the Sixth Floor Museum and the underpass. They climbed up and photographed or filmed Elm Street, many with a gliding movement, as if following the motorcade down the stretch of road that morning forty years ago. Some photographed the abutment itself, an unremarkable piece of concrete. At one point, a cameraman from CNN climbed up on it, carrying all his gear, and positioned himself there in order to shoot some images of Elm Street and the gathering crowds.
Of course, it was not only the excellent view of the plaza that made this climb look so inviting to camera-carrying amateurs and professionals alike. They were doing this because a fifty-eight-year-old manufacturer of ladies' dresses, Abraham Zapruder, had made that same climb forty years earlier and accidentally filmed the assassination. The story of how that happened has become a contemporary legend. On the rainy morning of November 22, 1963, Zapruder went to work at his office on Elm Street. Although excited about the president's visit, he had left his 8 mm camera at home, since the weather conditions did not seem to invite filming. However, at ten o'clock the skies cleared. When the sun broke through, several people in his office who knew him to be an eager amateur filmmaker suggested that Zapruder go home and get the camera. In the future, a film of the presidential visit would undoubtedly find a special place in his collection of home movies. Zapruder went home and got the camera and returned to his office. After deciding not to film the motorcade from his office window, as he had originally planned to do after reading about its route in the morning newspapers, he went down to Dealey Plaza to find a better angle and, after looking around a bit, settled on the concrete abutment in the pergola. He suffered from vertigo and was afraid to climb up on it. The receptionist from his office, Marilyn Sitzman, who had found her way down to the plaza too, offered to hold onto his coat to steady him. They both climbed the pillar. At twelve thirty, the president's motorcade came down Houston Street and turned onto Elm Street. Zapruder kept filming the car the president was sitting in until it disappeared from view to the right, under the overpass. He never took his eye away from the telescopic lens that magnified everything he saw.
One can only imagine what Zapruder would have thought if he had been able to see the abutment forty years later, knowing that his film and its story were engaging people in collective reenactment in Dealey Plaza. I felt dizzy when I eventually made the climb myself: from that vantage point, the world indeed did seem to me "increasingly filmic," to borrow the words of Joel Black, a literature and film scholar; the plaza itself was "recorded, registered, and increasingly recognizable only as a series of mediated events." Watching the hordes of people made me feel as if I had climbed into the television set in my hotel room and become part of what I had watched earlier that morning, zapping from one channel to the next, encountering the same images again and again. A few people were lining up, waiting to get a chance to do exactly what I now found myself doing. All around me, people were filming—or they were being filmed as they pretended to film, in order to get their own simulations documented.
This book begins here, in Dallas on the day of the fortieth anniversary of Kennedy's death. Zaprudered explores how the cultural status of Zapruder's accidental footage has been transformed in the decades following the event and how it has contributed in producing a collective and compulsive impulse to visualize that today defines Dealey Plaza and the commemoration that goes on there. For more than a decade after the assassination, Zapruder's images were visible to the public only as a series of stills published in a magazine and were broadcast on national television first in 1975. Scrutinized for years as photographic evidence and an indexical record of one of the most controversial murders of the twentieth century, the Zapruder film has never yielded a conclusive version of what happened in Dealey Plaza, and its meaning remains contested for that reason. Over the years, however, the images have increasingly come to figure heavily in a range of diverse cultural expressions, including movies, television series, documentaries, video artworks, performances, plays, gallery installations and exhibitions, prints, paintings, video games, novels, and comic books. The fact that the original film that was inside Zapruder's camera has been converted into public property—becoming the highest-priced photographic artifact in the world in the process—both reflects and contributes to this transition from an evidentiary to an aesthetic image, which calls for a shift in critical focus to the performativity of the images.
Before addressing the nature of this transformation, however, it is pertinent to raise the fundamental question of what "the Zapruder film" is. Indeed, the compound noun and proper noun are only deceptively simple: even if the definite article suggests reference to a particular object, a film, and identifies it by transforming the name of its maker into a proper adjective, no one would protest or find it peculiar if I were to say that I woke up in my Dallas hotel and "saw the Zapruder film on television." In the vernacular, then, "the Zapruder film" simultaneously refers both to a photographic artifact—the original film that was inside Zapruder's camera when he recorded the assassination—and to one of the most recycled film clips of contemporary visual culture. Even if the distinctions between these two different meanings of the phrase are so familiar that we only seldom pause to reflect upon them, it is nevertheless significant to address them before contemplating the cultural status of what has simply come to be called "the Zapruder film."
A master and three copies of the film were distributed to four different cities on the afternoon of the day that followed Kennedy's death. "From then on," David Wrone points out, "the original and each copy would have separate and distinct histories." Even the briefest account of the Zapruder film's early history thus raises questions of object, naming, and cultural status that echo those Walter Benjamin reflected upon in his essay on the status of the artwork in the age of "technological reproducibility." Indeed, the original film has been seen as imbued with a complex sense of aura, even if it is not an artwork in any traditional sense of the word and remains vaulted and will never be exhibited. It is significant, however, that the cultural status of the Zapruder film depends not merely on the journeys of objects, whether originals or copies, but also on something less quantifiable, namely, how its images have appeared in a variety of media and spread virally through culture. That is the subject of this book, which, as the title suggests, explores the journey of Zapruder's images rather than his film.
Zapruder's Images as a Rorschach of Cultural Memory
Every time we watch the footage today, the images have been transformed into something new. They keep floating hither and thither in what is popularly referred to as a torrent of images and sounds, and are endlessly recycled in what Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin call "remediation," the mediation of mediation. If we see them in a clip in one of the televised specials that map the major events of a century, they are placed within a larger narrative structure that is specific to the medium of television. If we see them in a theater, they have been edited into a movie and figure there in a way that is integral to a corresponding logic of storytelling. If we see the images on the Internet, on a website like YouTube, amateurs have played around with them on their desktops before posting something that yet resists generic description. If we watch a DVD at home, digitization has transformed the images, and we are invited to watch repeatedly. Unlike the film, which seems to have reached its final destination in a vault at the National Archives, the journey of Zapruder's images has no end.
Although he could never have anticipated such a comprehensive projection, Zapruder instantly understood that his images were bound to cross-technological boundaries and appear in a number of media, that they inevitably had to be projected on a grand scale rather than in the private sphere of his living room. Richard B. Stolley, who bought the film for Life magazine from Zapruder the morning after Kennedy died, describes how, during their negotiations, Zapruder worried about the exploitation of his film. Zapruder told him about a dream from the previous night in which "he was walking through Times Square and came upon a barker urging tourists to step inside a sleazy theater to watch the President die on the big screen." What Zapruder realized was that he had created images that neither he nor anyone else would ever be able to control entirely. Even if he could only sense it, there is something almost uncanny about how his nightmare of a Times Square spectacle predicted the manifold ways that his images would spread. In a way, this book may thus be said to explore the depths of Zapruder's early intuitions.
The cultural status of the Zapruder film derives in part from the fact that its projection is shaped by the realities of contemporary visual technology, but it is more complex than technological facts alone can explain. In a sense, Zapruder's images were seen first by their maker, who looked at them through his viewfinder as they were caught on Kodachrome II Safety Film, an outdoor color film. His footage came into being as what is known in photographic processing as a "latent image," but at the same time, a mental image was shaped, a memory that would keep Zapruder awake many a night in years to come. Wrone describes how Zapruder found himself in a state of shock after he saw the car disappear under the overpass and climbed down, only to wander around the chaotic plaza for a while before making it back to his office. After placing his camera on a filing cabinet, he sat down at his desk and began to weep. Traumatized by what he had seen, he nevertheless knew that he had to begin to deal with what to do with his recording.
His film was the subject of deep speculation before anyone saw it; several reporters had spoken with Zapruder before and immediately after he left the plaza. The images were thus imagined before the film had been projected or even developed; a description that immediately began to travel by word of mouth, spreading like wildfire, brought the strip of celluloid mythic status even in its early, embryonic state. Zapruder's traumatic experience was thus characterized by the paradoxical fact that the very images he wanted to forget were the same that he had to share with a mass audience, a fact that placed a heavy responsibility on his shoulders. A struggle for ownership preceded the first projection of the film, and its status as a unique record was recognized before it had been seen by anyone.
As these initial observations indicate, the question of the identity of the Zapruder film is related to the question that W. J. T. Mitchell raises in the introduction to his Iconology, namely, "What is an image?" In listing the various meanings we attach to the word, Mitchell suggests that we think of images as a family: a rough distinction is normally made between material images and what he calls mental and verbal images. Likewise, in more recently proposing a new approach to iconology, Hans Belting insists that images "are neither on the wall (or on the screen) nor in the head alone" and observes that the discourse of images is characterized by "contradictory conceptions of what images are and how they operate." Both Mitchell and Belting problematize how material and mental images have come to belong exclusively to specific institutional discourses (semiology, art history, psychology, neurobiology); as a result, the interactions between these two kinds of images, Belting argues, remain "largely unexplored." A central reason that we tend to have a problem with the very notion of mental images, Mitchell argues, is that although we share the capability to project mental images (when we remember or dream, for example), we cannot point to the physical presence of a mental image.
Indeed, questions concerning how our minds work visually are significant for how we remember in a culture of images. In recent years, several articles and books that address the complex relations between the past, memory, and history have sought to theorize the boundaries between material and mental images, and a new concept, "cultural memory," has come to present an alternative to that of "collective memory." "All memory is individual, unreproducible—it dies with each person," writes Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others. "What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened, with the pictures that lock the story in our minds." Work on the idea of cultural memory has renewed recognition of the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, a student of Emile Durkheim and the author of La Mémoire Collective (published posthumously in 1950), a study that for years made him a primary theoretical reference point for any study that addressed how memories are shared collectively. However, several critics have come to suggest that emphasis on the social construction of memory brings with it a neglect of the significance of individual memory, and the need to address the way memories are "tangled," as Marita Sturken puts it, has led to a critical reformulation of Halbwachs's influential concept. Theorists have increasingly recognized how the past, in one way or another, must always be culturally mediated. Even though human memory may be an anthropological given, Andreas Huyssen argues, memory is nevertheless necessarily based on representation. The past does not simply reside in memory; it must be articulated before it can become memory. Sturken sees cultural memory as different from, yet entangled with, individual memory and historical discourse; likewise, Mieke Bal describes the past as something always articulated in the present and thus as fundamentally an expression of the moment of articulation. To these theorists, memory is a phenomenon that is not merely individual or social but also, significantly, cultural.
To a tremendous degree, cultural memory of the Kennedy assassination is shaped by the photographic record of the event, both directly and indirectly, in the centers as well as at the margins of culture. In The World's Tribute to John F. Kennedy in Medallic Art, published three years after the assassination, Aubrey Mayhew describes the timeworn tradition of medallic art as a privileged form of memorialization because it is tangible and material—it represents a "permanent record." One of the medals in Mayhew's book is a double representation of the deaths of Kennedy and Oswald. One side copies the famous press photograph, taken by Jack Beers, of Jack Ruby shooting Oswald in the stomach, a picture that was circulated by the Associated Press and featured in Life magazine a week after the assassination. The other side depicts Kennedy's death. Positioned in the back seat, he clutches his neck in pain after the impact of the first bullet. At his side, Jacqueline Kennedy, wearing her pillbox hat, a familiar detail of assassination iconography, turns toward him. John Connally and his wife, Nellie, are placed in the seat in front of them, the governor also about to turn around; behind them, the Texas School Book Depository towers against a gloomy, dark sky. Engraved in metal, the image nevertheless has a photographic quality, and it clearly draws from the visual information of several photographic sources.
However permanent a record, and however much it may inspire collectors' nostalgia, the medal does not in any sense represent a defining or authoritative cultural memory of the assassination, as Mayhew suggested, or perhaps rather wished. Instead, the collectible seems to invite comparisons between different media of exchange and the shifting symbolic value we attach to them. Even if a medal differs from a coin, both are pictures that rest in the palm of a hand, and thus both raise questions concerning the transforming concept of "currency." In what Mitchell (echoing Benjamin) calls "the age of biocybernetic reproduction," images as well as money have come to circulate in global economies. As this book amply demonstrates, this transition implies neither the gradual disappearance of Zapruder's images nor a cultural "devaluation," but rather a widespread and complex proliferation.
Whatever its form, it is difficult to imagine the cultural memory of the assassination without the Zapruder film; according to Sturken, it is impossible. Increasingly, future encounters with Zapruder's images will thus produce what Marianne Hirsch calls "postmemory," which is characterized not by recollection but rather by an interaction with cultural memory that depends on "imaginative investment and creation." Significantly, cultural memory has the power to become infused with or replace real memories. Sturken thus predicts plausibly that it is through Oliver Stone's JFK (1991) that a majority of people will come to see the Zapruder film in the future. Whereas Zapruder's images evoke the memories of one generation, they are bound to shape the postmemories of the next.
A scene from Wolfgang Petersen's In the Line of Fire (1993) illustrates well the significance of these observations for the analysis of how Zapruder's images appear in culture. The movie tells the story of how Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood), one of the Secret Service agents who rode with the motorcade and failed to protect Kennedy in Dallas, gets another chance to take a bullet and save a president three decades later. (Describing himself wryly as a "living legend," "the only active agent who ever lost a president," Eastwood's character was inspired by real-life Secret Service agent Clinton J. Hill, the agent who ran after Kennedy's car and climbed up on it.) During a routine investigation, Horrigan searches an apartment and finds a wall covered with photographs and magazine articles of the assassination. The resident is clearly obsessed with the event, but is he dangerous? Horrigan returns a day later to find that there is just one photograph still pinned to the wall, one of him riding with the presidential motorcade in Dallas (a manipulation of James Altgen's well-known photograph for the Associated Press). Eerily, there is a red circle drawn around his head. From then on, he becomes personally involved, and the film describes the cat-and-mouse game that ensues between the aging agent and the would-be assassin, Mitch Leary (John Malkovich), a former CIA contractor grown bitter.
One night Leary (who calls himself Booth, after Lincoln's assassin) calls Horrigan at home and says, "I'm watching your movie." Isolated in one of the bare rooms where he spends much of the movie plotting a presidential assassination, Leary is watching footage from Kennedy's Dallas trip on his television set. As he talks to the agent, the camera zooms in on Horrigan's face; images from Dallas are superimposed over Eastwood's stony expression. Simultaneously, we see a young Eastwood manipulated into the footage; he has been given a digital haircut and can be spotted behind the Kennedys in the terminal at Love Field. "Only one agent reacted," Leary says, knowing which buttons to push, "and you were closer to Kennedy." Silently, Horrigan listens to Leary's droning voice asking him: "Late at night, when the demons come, do you see the rifle coming out of that window, or do you see Kennedy's head being blown apart?" Superimposed over Horrigan's face, Zapruder's images flash across the screen.
Horrigan stares intently into what we gather is his memory of the assassination. The images he sees are identical with those Leary is watching as he slyly remarks, "That could have been your head blown apart." The scene shows one man remembering, then, and the other watching; it shows us that Zapruder's images are both mental and graphic images, that they are projected as both human and cultural memories. They have a diegetic function in the narrative of In the Line of Fire, since they come to represent the memory that Horrigan is haunted by and that he seeks to confront actively by asking to be reassigned to the presidential security team: the images are traumatic for him not only because they reflect how he shares in a collective sense of loss of a national leader, but also because they have come to symbolize his professional failure. The movie's use of the images thus reflects its makers' recognition of the prominent status of Zapruder's images in the formation of memory in the broadest sense of the word. Petersen was undoubtedly aware that they would be familiar to the audience, since they figure prominently in Stone's box-office success, which would still have been fresh in the minds of many moviegoers when In the Line of Fire premiered in the summer of 1993.
In the Line of Fire is thus a story of redemption, and Zapruder's images have a function in its narration. This reflects another fundamental aspect of the images: whenever they are projected, they are framed by a narrative. Indeed, in less than half a minute, the Zapruder film tells a story of its own, of how a man seated in a car with his wife is shot to death. Its 486 frames move with inevitability toward a double closure of film and life. In Shooting Kennedy: JFK and the Culture of Images, David Lubin suggests that the film's structure thus inevitably conforms to the three-act structure of mainstream cinema. The film has proved immensely attractive to filmmakers, who frequently quote and reinscribe it; film scholars have been fond of proclaiming it a "cinematic ur-text." Zapruder's images have thus lent themselves to a particular kind of meditation on the filmic image and, in recent years, more specifically on the documentary image. In addressing the relationship between the Zapruder film as record and as representation, Stella Bruzzi argues that the footage is "mutable" in the sense that it is always reinterpreted and recontextualized, and thus always incomplete, a fact that profoundly informs its status as archival evidence. The footage can be considered a "fragment seized from reality," in the words of Michael Chanan; it is always already both index and icon, both objective and subjective, in the way that it necessarily shows a truth, but not the whole truth.
Zaprudered represents a shift in focus and scope from the above-mentioned chapter-length discussions of Zapruder's footage in several ways. It explores the images in depth rather than merely describing how they are quoted in a variety of media. It addresses the ways in which the footage reappears in a range of narrative situations that are distinctly characterized by verbal-visual tensions, but it does not limit its discussions to questions concerning the properties of the image in fiction and nonfiction film. Whereas the 8 mm film that Zapruder recorded had no sound, we always encounter the images in a word-image interplay—words, whether spoken or written, shape our understanding of them—and this fundamental fact has implications far beyond the ontological debates that tend to inform medium-specific writings on the importance of the footage. To achieve a greater understanding of how Zapruder's images have increasingly taken on an allegorical character over the last decades, it is therefore vital to address how their incessant movement across media informs and even defines their shifting performativity in visual culture.
Zapruder's Images as Cultural Vanishing Point
The most basic definition of allegory reflects how it says one thing and means another, as Angus Fletcher observes in his classic study, how it undermines our expectation that our words "mean what they say." A couple of years before Fletcher's comprehensive book came out in 1964, J. L. Austin's How To Do Things With Words was published, a book that addresses the performativity of words—how they in fact not only mean more than or something different from what they say, but also do more than just say things. In much of his work, Mitchell insists on a sustained critical reflection on the ability of images to take on a similar agency. This book represents an attempt to address Zapruder's images from such a perspective, namely, that what they do is every bit as important as what they are or mean. This shift in focus is significant for our understanding of the extensive allegorical reach of the images because the many attempts to impart knowledge about the assassination from the footage ultimately have contributed profoundly to their transformation into allegory.
How the assassination has been represented visually, Art Simon argues, reflects more than anything a fundamental instability, and the Zapruder film plays a particularly significant role in this, since ever-new attempts to discover some hidden truth in the images through rotoscoping, rephotography, and frame enlargement ultimately have achieved abstraction in the place of precision. The definitive moving image of the assassination, the Zapruder film provides a time frame of the event and has inspired endless and contradictory theories about what happened when Kennedy was shot; bodily movements have been scrutinized in search of evidence of a second shooter. The film has been used to argue both for and against a wealth of conspiracy theories. Indeed, as the forensic gaze has continued to reveal the immense number of dots of which a photographic image ultimately consists, and as the epistemological status of the film consequently has been threatened by this removal from figurality to abstraction, artists have increasingly turned to its expressive aspects, to its allegorical potential. The epistemological crisis described by several cultural theorists thus simultaneously produces and reflects a transformation of the performative function of Zapruder's images from the evidentiary to the aesthetic. The images hide as much as they reveal, making the spectator look hard for what they seem to conceal, for what is there but seems to be invisible. The effect of the many investigations into the film's frames—whether they have been viewed in slow motion or had their colors enhanced or been projected forward or in reverse or, more recently, been digitally manipulated—is that the footage has become "a work of artistic abstraction," Lubin argues. As John Beck observes, a history of the uses and abuses of the footage thus offers critical insight into a culture that has increasingly lost faith in the indexicality of photographic representations. In a sense, Zapruder's images have simultaneously caused this distrust in the veracity of images and called for innovative interpretive methods with which to approach visual information now and in the future.
The scene from Petersen's movie suggests that a perspective on Zapruder's images as a reemerging, traumatic representation and an involuntary memory is significant, but as this book demonstrates amply, their allegorical quality involves much more, finally, than a "return of the dead," in Roland Barthes's well-known formulation. Christopher Brown's painting Elm Street (1995) illustrates this point well.
Significantly, remembering is a process not merely of recall but inevitably also of distortion; there is a difference between the mental images we produce in moments of seeing and those involved in remembering, and the scene in Petersen's movie does not address this distinction—which is precisely what interests Brown. Obviously, Elm Street differs from the film scene in that it is a painting exhibited in a gallery; however, it also distinguishes itself by transforming Zapruder's images more radically, to the extent that this transformation constitutes the painting and makes it predominantly allegorical. It does not merely depict a scene; it insistently invites us to reflect upon its depiction and to question more deeply the processes of imaging, imagining, and picturing. If the advent of photography has taught us much about how imprecise memory is, as Alison M. Gingeras suggests, about how it is "nebulous, malleable, ever changing," then the painted image, materially sensual and tactile, can be seen as corresponding "more closely to the imprecision of the human brain's mnemonic functions." However, Brown's painted image of a human memory shaped by the photographic record of an event insists that these processes are entangled, that the technology of photography deeply informs mnemonic functions.
Brown paints his own individual memory of the film, not the event of Kennedy's death. Elm Street is part of a series of paintings which all allude to Zapruder's images in similar ways, echoing the filmic properties of the original (blurs, visible frame edges, sprocket holes). Elm Street can thus be placed in a tradition that addresses not only the increasingly contested mnemonic function of photography but also, by extension, various contemporary art debates. The painting illustrates Beck's observation that what makes the Zapruder film such an important text in the history of American visual culture is that the film and the history of its reception have contributed significantly to the very criteria of what has constituted art since the 1960s. Elm Street thus invites reflection not only on the formation of human and cultural memory but also on abstraction and figurality, on the properties of painted and photographic images, and ultimately on what we conceive of as art.
Certainly, Brown's painting suggests that the Zapruder film, widely regarded as symbolic of a crisis of representation, must also be considered as representative of a specific period in cultural history. In his "report on knowledge," Jean-François Lyotard defines the postmodern as "incredulity towards metanarratives," that is, toward the grand narratives of history and science. Fredric Jameson refers to the Kennedy assassination as no less than the defining moment of this paradigm shift, the "inaugural event." Such a sentiment has been echoed by critics who have conceived of it paradoxically as "the first postmodern historical event." Indeed, Kennedy's death seems to resist narrativization, and yet only inspires more of it; it threatens to atomize any model theory of narrative. This has led Hayden White to refer to it as an example of how historical notions of "the event" have been dissolved, a condition in turn giving rise to "new genres of postmodernist parahistorical representation." The assassination, White argues, can be considered a "modernist event," one that resists traditional methods of categorization as well as ways of assigning meanings to events. The Warren Commission's multivolume report on the assassination becomes a postmodern symbol of such a dissolution of the event, a "novelization of the Zapruder film," in the words of J. G. Ballard, or, as one of the characters in Don DeLillo's Libra describes it, "the megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he'd moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred."
Zapruder's Images and the Pictorial Turn
It is not my intention here to invoke the postmodernism debate or to dwell further on the question of whether the Zapruder film is a genuinely postmodern phenomenon. The point, rather, is that the technological realities of the period in question are bound not only to shape any cultural study of the Zapruder film, but also to transform how we think and write about images and about the material conditions in which they are made to appear. In what follows, Zapruder's images will therefore be analyzed against the background of what Mitchell calls the "pictorial turn." The pictorial turn, Mitchell posits in Picture Theory, is complexly related to the postmodern; it is less a beginning of something new at the end of postmodernism than it is a continuation or constituent of the postmodern. What are the consequences of this observation of a pictorial turn for how one should address Zapruder's images critically? Most significantly, the images should not be analyzed exclusively from the perspective of one of the "models of textuality," Mitchell insists. The pictorial turn entails "a postlinguistic, postsemiotic rediscovery of the picture as a complex interplay between visuality, apparatus, institutions, discourse, bodies, and figurality" that engages us in a critical rethinking of the theoretical models we have constructed to make sense of how we look at images. Of course, this does not mean that these theories cannot provide insights that are important (as indeed they do throughout this book). Rather, it suggests that we need to recognize that spectatorship is as deep a problem as reading and that "visual experience and 'visual literacy' might not be fully explicable on the model of textuality." The pictorial turn thus stimulates interest in the very question of what vision is, a "fascination with the senses, perception, and imagination"—in short, an interest in an aesthetic complexity that cannot be addressed with a "reliance on linguistic and discursive models" alone.
The medal, the movie, and the painting: all these illustrate how Zapruder's images are in a sense graphic, mental, and verbal images that shape and distort human as well as culturally produced memories with imagery that is, ultimately, also expressive, a quality that makes the film latently allegorical. All three expressions suggest that Lubin is right when he insists that the Zapruder film today must be analyzed as "more than a forensic or historical document, more than a home movie." This book consists of analyses of how a variety of cultural expressions have projected Zapruder's images in ways not unlike these initial examples, which I have merely touched upon briefly. Zaprudered is thus a study of how images appear in a variety of media and have distinct performative functions that shape and are shaped by a variety of material practices in producing pictorial representations. Both image-in-motion (abstract) and object-in-motion (concrete), the Zapruder film evidently calls for a kind of analysis that addresses the aesthetic, social, political, and ethical aspects of the film's migratory identity. Zapruder's images appear in an expansive object domain and can never be fixed by any one object. They seem to exist epidemically rather than endemically, leaving the analyst forever a step behind, troubling the very sense of "object" in a way that threatens to critically undermine systematic book-length study. Indeed, Zaprudered represents less an attempt to overcome these problems than to work with them—in the belief that valuable insights are produced in the process.
Not only to acknowledge, but also to take critically into consideration this fleeting movement between the concrete and the abstract that characterizes the unruly identity of Zapruder's images, this book proposes to think of them as "traveling images." It follows from this conception, which seeks to reflect how the images move across and between the media in which they appear, that the present work can be considered an extended argument for the view that an image-picture duality is fundamental to the Janus-like identity of the Zapruder film as well as to its cultural status. Whereas the word "picture" in these pages refers to the material image, the word "image" will be used to describe the immaterial image. The metaphoricity of the phrase "traveling image" is intended to suggest that Zapruder's images consequently invite a movement between disciplines, that they call for the Latin prefix "inter-": neither the traveling image nor the study of it can ever reach a final destination. Embedded in the phrase is an acknowledgment that images cannot belong to any one discipline and, furthermore, that an analysis of this kind is profoundly dialectic, since it can begin and end only with temporary conclusions that must be amended in an ongoing process.
Close readings of how Zapruder's images "travel" allow me to address the transition of the cultural status both of the images and the film; the one informs the other. Images have always traveled, and I should state that I do not think of "traveling images" as exclusively photographic; neither their appeal nor their reach are confined by the visual technology of any given period. Traveling images are notable for their iconogenerative power, for how they persist to be projected, imagined, and described through an extended period of time and in very different ways. For widely different reasons, images have traveled because they had to be seen and to be seen again.
With such a scope, there is no one "field" of scholarship, no single discipline of the humanities, from which one can approach and address Zapruder's images. The success of the present endeavor depends on the validity of an interdisciplinary approach—a meeting of perspectives and discourses—for the critical analysis of a phenomenon of contemporary culture. As Mieke Bal points out, there are two basic reasons for invoking interdisciplinarity, "either because the object requires it, or because the approach is more productive when not confined to disciplinary traditions." Critics of interdisciplinarity sometimes see it as a hollow gesture, as an irresponsible declaration of a Feyerabendian "anything goes" attitude, or simply as an autostatement of unclear implications. In a symposium on interdisciplinarity in the Art Bulletin, Carlo Ginzburg reminds us that "there is nothing intrinsically innovative or subversive in an interdisciplinary approach to knowledge," and in the same forum, Mitchell observes that interdisciplinarity "may be nothing more than a euphemism for something else, a term that permits us to feel good about what we do and to avoid thinking about it too precisely."
However different in their thoughts on "being interdisciplinary," Ginzburg, Mitchell, and Bal agree that the point must be that interdisciplinarity is performed not routinely or ritualistically—that, in the words of Ginzburg, the critic is not "unchallenged by the objects"—but rather that it provokes new methods, new ways of looking and thinking. Zaprudered draws on insights from articles and books that can be placed in disciplines and fields such as visual culture studies, cultural analysis, American studies, history, iconology, and narratology. Furthermore, several of my readings are informed by preceding genre- and medium-specific studies with which they enter into a dialogue, and a number of works I consult in the pages that follow address the Kennedy images or the Zapruder film more specifically. Indeed, a number of these texts, hard to categorize in any rigid way, could thus be said to belong in more than one discipline. To engage with this multitude of texts meaningfully, I have been inspired by what Bal calls a "concept-based methodology."
Bal's idea is that the analyst not only addresses the etymological and intellectual history of a critical concept, but also engages with it in analysis as a "traveling concept." With reference to an article in which Jonathan Culler traces the concept of "the performative" across disciplinary borders, Bal proposes that the concept itself is not only performative, but also potentially productively so in analysis. Echoing Austin, she suggests that a concept used as an analytical tool benefits from always being in a process of becoming: "While groping to define, provisionally and partly, what a particular concept may mean, we gain insight into what it can do." This heuristic strategy informs the analysis of Zaprudered. It was Edward Said who observed that ideas and theories travel, just like people and schools of criticism: they travel "from person to person, from situation to situation, from one period to the other." A failure to critically address how this profoundly conditions analysis, Said insists, can result in theoretical stagnation and irresponsible appropriation. In the introduction to her Reader, Bal insists that concepts can offer "miniature theories" only if scholars use them to confront, rather than apply, the cultural objects under examination. This point is instrumental in a book about Zapruder's footage, since the history of its appropriations reflects strongly how cultural objects are "amenable to change and apt to illuminate historical and cultural differences." The aim of Zaprudered is to enact and engage with these ongoing transformations of images as well as concepts. An ongoing reflection on traveling images thus provides this book with the miniature theory around which it revolves.
Even if Zapruder's images travel, they cannot, as Art Simon argues in Dangerous Knowledge, be regarded merely as "free-floating signifiers." Rather, they need to be addressed with attention to how they inform and are informed by the debates around Kennedy's assassination, the discursivity of which is defined by very specific media forms. As Simon observes, the journalistic texts and their deployment serve as a fitting starting point because it was in those pages that the cultural memory of the assassination was publicly initiated and most thoroughly developed in the early years. Every time Zapruder's images appear, they do so in what Bal calls an "expository discourse." Gestures of showing, she suggests, can be analyzed as discursive acts that are analogous to speech acts. "Exposition" is a word we traditionally connect with "exhibition"; normally, since the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, both terms have referred to public fairs or displays of material objects, whether industrial products or artworks. In my first chapter, however, I borrow Bal's notion of "exposition," which extends to a much broader, partly metaphorical use. By analyzing three narratives that in different ways "project" Zapruder's images, the chapter discusses how the immediate transformation of the Zapruder film into private property was the effect of a distinct pressure to visualize the event of the assassination in the news media. Ownership was motivated solely by this pressure; the cultural status of the Zapruder film was thus entirely conditioned by the ability of its images to produce the account of the assassination that the privileged photographic record offered. The achieving of "expository agency" thus implied the cultural authority that is ascribed to the main narrator and interpreter of the past. In effect, the modes of display of these journalistic discourses were defined by a show-and-tell strategy that is troubled by any large-scale projection of traumatic footage.
In Chapters Two through Four, Zaprudered considers how Zapruder's images have been treated artistically and how this changes the way we look at them. Artistic expressions have had a tendency to be neglected in studies of how collective memories are shaped. In Covering the Body, her comprehensive study of how journalists have shaped the cultural memory of the assassination, Barbie Zelizer describes in a brief epilogue how the premiere of Stone's JFK put the assassination debates back on the national agenda at the very moment that her book was going to publication. As Zelizer argues in her brief coda, Stone's film supports and extends the central arguments of her book, namely, that journalists have used the assassination story in order to attain cultural authority. The impact of Stone's film was unprecedented, and the need to address it in a book about how journalists have shaped the collective memory of the assassination is obvious—not least since the success of the film contributed to a significant transfer of authority from the historian (as well as the journalist) to the filmmaker. Yet Zelizer's epilogue leaves the reader wondering whether popular culture—or the art world, for that matter—had not also shaped human and cultural memory of the assassination before the release of Stone's film—and if so, why this is practically absent from her study.
"Culture, popular or otherwise," David Lubin writes, "is not a mere side effect of history or a glittering distraction from it but is instead integral to it, playing an active role in the making of that history." Chapters Two through Four not only reflect this sentiment, but also take it seriously by performing in-depth analyses of how Zapruder's images appear in Ant Farm's video The Eternal Frame (1975), in Don DeLillo's novel Underworld (1997), and in an episode of the sitcom Seinfeld (1992). The second chapter, "Eternally Framed," introduces "quotation" as key concept for exploring how Zapruder's images travel through these widely different cultural expressions. The paradox The Eternal Frame theorizes, I suggest in Chapter Two, is that whereas bodies and pictorial representations are subject to destruction, images are only empowered by acts of iconoclasm. By presenting Zapruder's images theatrically, the performance troupe Ant Farm insists that the images cannot be made to disappear, that they have taken on a powerful life of their own. The Eternal Frame theorizes about how Zapruder's frames of film are constantly reframed in mediation, both metaphorically and quite literally, by enacting it.
Description can indeed be called an expository mode of writing. In Chapter Three, the concept of exposition can thus be said to "travel" into the realm of novelistic discourse. In a close reading of Don DeLillo's description of an artistic multiple-screen projection of Zapruder's images in Underworld, I argue that the images are projected as both verbal image and memento mori. The fact that the art installation DeLillo describes is his own invention is less significant than the capacity of his fiction to performatively analyze the transition of Zapruder's images from evidentiary to aesthetic image: whereas in Libra they are analyzed by assassination researchers who are unable to read any epistemological truth in them, they are projected as aesthetic image in Underworld. In Ant Farm's video as well as in DeLillo's novel, Zapruder's images thus appear in what Mitchell calls "metapictures," pictures that theorize about pictorial representation. In Chapter Four, in an analysis of how "The Boyfriend" (1992), an episode of the sitcom Seinfeld, quotes the projection of Zapruder's images in Stone's movie in order to perform a genre parody, I observe how the images have traveled even further away from their status as historical images. Quotation here transports me into theories of postmodern intertextuality and Linda Hutcheon's notion of parody as "stylistic confrontation."
In the fifth chapter, I consider how two events in the nineties both reflected and contributed to what I describe as a transformation of cultural status. In the summer of 1998, the Zapruder film was released commercially on a DVD, Image of an Assassination, and later that same year, the U.S. government used eminent domain to take Zapruder's camera-original footage from the Zapruder family and into its own possession. These events reflect how Zapruder's images are now widely recognized in U.S. culture as predominantly aesthetic rather than evidentiary images, I argue in the chapter. The sixth chapter then traces the images into the museum. In a close reading of Zoran Naskovski's Death in Dallas (2000), I consider how the installation is not only informed by how it is situated—in the exhibition narrative of which it is a part, or as a particular form of institutional poetics—but also marked as an event by factors that have to be identified outside the museum building. Zapruder's frames are now being projected in the same sphere as the finer arts; how does this change how we look at the images?
The seventh chapter returns me to Dealey Plaza, where I pay a visit to the Sixth Floor Museum, arguing that a pressure to visualize troubled their poetics of preservation in the years leading up to the fortieth anniversary of the assassination. The public outcry against a video game that invites the player to imagine herself as the assassin—as the corner-window exhibit does, however differently, in the museum in Dealey Plaza—can in part be said to reflect how the museum's institutional authority to narrate and stage events of history remains so strong that it often goes unquestioned.
All these chapters reflect how "no set of imagery has toured the cultural landscape as much as that referring in some way to the death of JFK," as Art Simon observes in Dangerous Knowledge, a book dedicated to analyzing how this imagery (and not exclusively the Zapruder film) informs Pop art, avant-garde art, and several movies. For very good reasons, Zapruder's footage has tended to be regarded as metonymical in its relations to the event of the assassination and various broader cultural and historical phenomena that are integral to and surround it. Like several of the articles and books mentioned in the previous pages—whether by Marita Sturken, David Lubin, Stella Bruzzi, or Michael Chanan—Simon's book features a chapter-long discussion of Zapruder's footage and uses it as a lens through which to address a very specific problematic. However, the time seems overripe for a study that concentrates consistently on the impact of Zapruder's images on culture, as well as on the film's transformed cultural status, over the length of a whole book. Zaprudered is the first publication to do so, a strategy the range of these phenomena presently seems to insist upon.
Even if the history of the Zapruder film is unique, it is evoked regularly with reference to contemporary events in visual culture. However different from their representational predecessors, the frames resemble such earlier images as Emanuel Leutze's history painting Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) and Timothy O'Sullivan's "A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg" (1863) in that they reflect how historical events have always been pictured. But the immense proliferation of pictures and the steadfast progression of contemporary visual technology in our present age, I would hold, urge us forcefully to consider with particular attention the specific subcategory of traveling images to which Zapruder's belong: those that originate in a photographic record of traumatic events captured by amateurs. It is pertinent not only to remember that the Zapruder film is indeed such a record, but also to reflect upon the implications of its transition into aesthetic image that Zaprudered analyzes. My book thus concludes by addressing a selection of more recent images shot by amateurs—images that have only just begun their journey through culture—and by reflecting upon the fact that such images at present seem to increasingly define cultural memory. These concluding observations are meant to invite further theoretical thinking on images that travel—for if there is no ending for this kind of analysis, there are certainly many beginnings.