Saturday, June 18, 2011

Walking into History: Jennifer Stoddart & Paul Fusco's 1000 Pictures: RFK's Last Journey

Photo by Paul Fusco.
When Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June 1968, while campaigning to be the Democratic Party's choice for President, you could feel the air going out of the culture. At the time, I was a Grade 8 student about to write my final exams. But when I woke the morning after the California primary to find out that he had both won and was mortally wounded by an assassin, I walked to school and promptly failed every one. Getting into high school just didn't seem to matter anymore. JFK's assassination might have been a seismic shock to the system in 1963, but this was a murder that curdled and darkened the nation.

Even though I was a Canadian, I was fervently following RFK's campaign as if caught up in the passion of a political dream, the quixotic idea that one could remake a country. Since Martin Luther King Jr. had just been murdered that spring, it seemed even more urgent that those ideals be realized through Robert Kennedy. Kennedy seemed to galvanize the nation by imagining a country built on the inclusion of its citizens; where rich and poor, black and white and Mexican-Americans could share in its possibilities. They would line the streets daily during that campaign clamoring to shake his hand while stepping forward as if they were walking into history, wanting to be a part of its making. There was a true sense, even with the horrible war going on in Vietnam, that the country could still be truly remade into something resembling the ideals set forth in its founding documents. In the absolute worst of times, you felt a keen sense of anticipation. But RFK's death seemed to kill any desire to hope for anything better.

Paul Fusco and Jennifer Stoddart.

I realized that I was living in a different country with a different dream in the early glow of the Pierre Trudeau years. But still something in my political spirit changed that day, as it did for many others who either turned to violent revolution, or turned inward instead. In the documentary 1000 Pictures: RFK's Last Journey (currently on HBO), director Jennifer Stoddart revisits that hope and uncovers the painful despair that followed that tragic event. After Kennedy's funeral in New York on June 8, his body was taken back to Washington by train to be buried in Arlington Cemetery next to JFK. During the journey, people who had once lined railway stations and sidewalks to commune with Robert Kennedy, now were once again lining the tracks to bid him farewell. On that trip, photographer Paul Fusco took photos from inside the train of all those he passed and caught them fleetingly as if they were a twinkle in his eye. 

Photo by Paul Fusco.
While incorporating Fusco's photos, Stoddart traces that sojourn from New York to Washington by also talking to some of those people today who were part of that walk into history on that sad day. Their grief is not only still palpable but we also get a glimpse of how lives were either further shaped by the events of that moment, or how the events in a number of lives intersected with the moment that train went by. One photo captures Joe Fausti, of Trenton, New Jersey, who was 18-years-old on that day. While gathering with friends to pay his respects, he raised his hand to wave at a helicopter over his head and blindly touched a high-tension wire which then shot 35,000 volts through his body. "I burst into flames," he tells Stoddart. "The electricity entered my hand, went through my body, and exited my left ankle." As he ponders Fusco's photo of him lying on the ground wrapped in the various clothes people used to put out the flames consuming him, he describes how it gives him "goosebumps" now recognizing not only how he might have died that day, but also recalling the painful skin grafts taken to heal the damage.

Photo by Paul Fusco.

Charles Maurone, who was a Democratic party chairman in Pennsylvania in 1968, seems caught in a perpetual time warp as he ponders the photo taken of him that day. “It was the end of something that hardly even began,” he tells Stoddart as if looking for a period to a sentence that has no conclusion. When the train got to Philidelphia, Fusco took a shot of Sedrick Robinson who was a young black teen at the time. Speaking to Stoddart in the film, he describes the city where both he and his country were born. “[It was a] highly segregated city at the time,” he explains while we see him tucked into the clusters of very distinctly separated groups of blacks and whites. “These memories brought back no hope, no food, going to school with no lunch.” While taking in the photo, Robinson also looks ahead in time considering those in the picture who wouldn't get out of the world alive due to violence and drugs. “I was just one who indulged in it. It was just a blessing from God how I got out of it.”

Photo by Paul Fusco.
Perhaps the most moving moment comes from Vanessa Chambers who spots her boyfriend Tootie not far from her. “He was a very sweet guy, very quiet,” she recalls sadly. Although they soon experienced the joy of having a child together, Tootie would later be killed. “I’m not really sure of all the circumstances, but I know he was shot in the chest and he died on the way to the hospital.” The poignancy of the moment comes when she adds, “This is the only picture with both of us in it, just like you’re frozen in time.” The experience of watching 1000 Pictures: RFK's Last Journey is like the thawing of a deep freeze. Some people pinpoint that day to their memories of a high school reunion, as another recalls the pain of losing relatives killed that day by a passing train on the other track that hit them while they waited for the late Senator to arrive. Throughout the film, Stoddart also includes Kennedy's voice from some of his campaign speeches as if to underline how the yearning in his voice invoked a pining in those who came to wish him farewell. In doing so, she also reminds us of a time when the desire for social change was a calling.

Photo by Paul Fusco.
Who knows why Kennedy's body was taken in a slow train back to Washington. Nobody in the film – especially his former press secretary Frank Mankiewicz – seems to know. “I had no idea people would gather or stand by the side of the train as it went by,” he recalls. But the image of the train has huge symbolic value. The train carries a wistful, even regretful quality in American popular songs like Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues"; it can also inspire a yelp of defiance in Elvis Presley's voice as he transforms Junior Parker's mournful "Mystery Train," a caboose that conclusively takes his girl away from him. In 1991, I travelled by train throughout the United States during the first Gulf War to trace the substance of the country in a time of war. This mode of travel not only linked me to disparate sections of the nation, but also different interpretations of its history.

But Kennedy's journey also evoked another image from a moment when a train seemed to link a country in grief. After President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in April 1945, his body left by train from Warm Springs, Georgia, where he had been visiting a health spa to ease his ailing and paralyzed body. It took him to his home in Hyde Park, New York, as people then lined the tracks to bid him goodbye. But while Roosevelt's journey reminded people of the cost exacted by a World War about to end (not to mention how its longest serving President had taken their nation through horrors of the Great Depression), Kennedy's train had a different impact. It reminds us now of a time that never happened, a dream that was never realized, a hope that was cruelly dashed. Roosevelt's train culminated an era of social change while Kennedy's forfeited the probability of one.

FDR's funeral train.

Jennifer Stoddart ends 1000 Pictures quite eloquently with the conclusion of Edward Kennedy's funeral eulogy for his dead brother. As we watch the still photos of the Arlington burial, held in the dark of night, Edward Kennedy's voice reminds us of what RFK once believed: "Some men see things as they are, and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not." 1000 Pictures: RFK's Last Journey ponders the fathomless depths of those words. 

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. His five-part lecture series, Roads to Perdition: The Allure of Film Noir  is currently running at the JCC Prosserman.   

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