- Zaprudered: The Kennedy Assassination Film in Visual Culture
Almost fifty years on, our fascination with the assassination of John F. Kennedy is an enduring fact of American life. We possess the best possible view of his murder, yet know less about it than any other such event in our history. Much of the credit for what knowledge we possess is due to a portly, 58-year-old dress manufacturer named Abraham Zapruder, who on November 22, 1963, overcame his chronic vertigo long enough to mount a pedestal in Dallas’s Dealey Plaza and record Kennedy’s death with a home movie camera. The view Zapruder accidentally provided was of movie-set quality; Kennedy was perfectly positioned for his lens. But instead of clarity, what became known to history as the “Zapruder film” offered uncertainty and doubt. Despite painstakingly rigorous analysis over the past half-century, it has clung resolutely to its secrets. The film is now an object of interest bordering on obsession. It has passed into American visual iconography, an artifact of mystery and evocation with the power to travel through generational time.
It is this “traveling” aspect of the Zapruder film that is the focus of Oyvind Vagnes’ Zaprudered: The Kennedy Assassination Film in Visual Culture, an examination of the strange career of this infamous home movie. Purchased by Life from a shaken Zapruder for $150,000 two days after Kennedy’s death, it was kept from public view by mutual agreement between the magazine’s parent corporation and the federal government for twelve years. After a dramatic reunveiling by journalist Geraldo Rivera on network television in 1975, the film entered national popular culture, transmogrifying into forms of art, music, literature, cinema, and even - thanks to a classic episode of the 1990s situation comedy “Seinfeld” - satire. It thus acquired a dual identity as both an “aesthetic image” (5) and the prime piece of evidence in America’s most compelling murder mystery. Now readily available through commercial media, having overcome all attempts at control or sequestration, the Zapruder film belongs to the American people as their “secular relic” (97).
As Vagnes explains, this has permitted the film to intersect with such unlikely subjects as gonzo performance artists, Balkan folk balladeers, and spitting major league baseball players. All well and good, of course, but after much time in the intellectual ether, during which he explores the myriad ways in [End Page 72] which the film has “traveled” through the American fin-de-siècle, Vagnes leaves us without a clear idea of its meaning. In fairness, this is largely attributable the nature of the event Zapruder filmed. Aptly described as “the first postmodern historical event” (16), the Kennedy assassination’s messy indeterminacy rejects the very idea of metanarrativity. Vagnes applies the basic principles of media studies - that images are culturally mediated, that they are the sites of battles for control waged by competing interests and groups, that they affect us subjectively - to the Zapruder film, and offers a series of judgments on how it has been, in his words, “projected, expressed, confiscated, and quoted” (152). He breaks no significant new ground, but this may be asking too much of Zapruder’s elusive text. Vagnes’ rendering of its exotic travelogue is valuable on its own terms, but ultimately the film may be sui generis, with the limitations that term implies.
Abraham Zapruder died in 1970. Were he alive today, the uses to which his home movie has been put over the years would undoubtedly bemuse him. Zapruder would also be surprised to learn that he is considered an early example of the “citizen-journalist” that digital media has made possible today. YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are children of the Zapruder film. While it is true that Zapruder needed the assistance of established media to publish his images, he was nonetheless able to use his Bell & Howell Zoomatic as a 1960s-era version of a cell phone camera. It enabled him to “tell” his version of the events in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963 to the...