Thursday, November 21, 2013

Vicious Circles: The JFK Conspiracy Films

Immersing oneself in the conspiracy mythology that has grown up around the assassination of President Kennedy means hearing, again and again, confident assertions of things that have been repeatedly shown to be untrue. Oswald couldn’t shoot straight, they say, and no one could get off the number of shots he supposed fired in the space of time he had using the weapon he would have used. There's also exhaustive, detailed arguments that completely unravel upon close inspection (such as all the mocking elaborations on the impossible trajectory of the bullet that passed through the bodies of Kennedy and John Connally that fail to take into account the fact that, as you guess just from looking at photos of the two men riding in the presidential limousine, Kennedy’s seat was a few key inches higher than Connally’s).

There was never any valid intellectual reason for doubting that Lee Harvey Oswald was the president’s killer, just as there’s never been any valid intellectual reason for doubting that the plays and poetry credited to William Shakespeare were written by William Shakespeare. Arguments that somebody else wrote Shakespeare’s work always come down to snobbery; they’re emotionally necessary for people who can’t deal with the fact that the greatest English writer was a mutt. The belief that Kennedy must have been the victim of a conspiracy must be very reassuring to people who can’t wrap their minds around the idea that some mutt with a mail-order rifle changed the course of history. That helps to explain why high-profile conspiracy proponents – people who claim to think that powerful forces, maybe even the government itself, murdered the president and got off scott free, never seem to be as furiously angry and despairing as you’d expect them to be. Given the chance to spout off, an Oliver Stone or Mark Lane is more likely to come across as remarkably at peace, even smug. Unlike the rest of us, they don’t live in a world where chaos reigns and things are out of man’s control. They know something you don’t know.

At its most broadly effective, popular culture simplifies experience, replaces logic and intellect with whatever’s emotionally satisfying, and streamlines things that are complicated and untamed. “Serious” conspiracy buffs working on movies about the assassination might think that they’re using pop culture to get their arguments into greater circulation, but they’re wrong; the whole JFK assassination-conspiracy industry is pop culture. For many people a movie like Stone’s JFK is as comforting as a movie that shows that the answer to exploding crime rates is to hire cops who can instinctively tell who’s guilty and not hold them back with a bunch of rules and regulations, or one showing that pre-Civil War white plantation owners were pals with their slaves. And, even for those of us who know better, JFK assassination-conspiracy lore is fun. There are so many options, so many colorful characters – and since the point of wallowing in the possibilities isn’t to find out who “really” did it – Jack Ruby shot the guy who really did it – it doesn’t matter that all those options cancel each other out and most of the colorful characters never crossed paths and lacked shared motives. When the actual Jim Garrison was forced to take the fruits of his “investigation” into a courtroom, he spent most of his time offering grand, pointless arguments about different people like Oswald, David Ferrie, Guy Bannister, and Clay Shaw and then claim they might have met at some point. Since he was operating in the real world, with a man’s life and freedom at stake, it was hard to just brush aside the fact that even if he’d been able to prove that all these guys knew each other – which he didn’t – that this in itself wouldn’t have proven that they’d used their time together to conspire to kill the President. In a movie, what’s mainly at stake is the viewer’s desire to believe he hasn’t wasted his three hours. It’s easier to believe that, if the actor making a courtroom speech seems to believe he’s saying something meaningful, he knows what he’s talking about and you must have missed something.

While assassination-conspiracy paranoia has endured because it’s fun, the saddest failures among assassination-conspiracy movies tend to be those that taste like medicine. They’re the ones that take the subject most seriously, as if they themselves were legitimate educational tools. Their poster child is Executive Action (1973), which was directed by David Miller from a script that Dalton Trumbo massaged out of a “story” by Mark Lane and his associate Donald Freed. A decade earlier, Miller and Trumbo had collaborated in Lonely Are the Brave, which is the sort of movie you end up with when guys who don’t understand what’s fun about Westerns try to make an elegy for the Western hero. Executive Action is a classroom docudrama about a fictional conspiracy that thinks it’s a political thriller (though Miller and Trumbo couldn’t thrill an audience if it released a gas that induced mass orgasm in the theater).

The pseudo-documentary dullness of their staging – four years after Costa-Gavras lit a fire under the genre of the topical political thriller with Z – provides no cover for the people onscreen who are “arguing” for a conspiracy by throwing anything they can at the wall. One minute, someone is guffawing at how ridiculously obvious it is that this Oswald character, with his left-wing politics and American military background, is some kind of CIA mole; later, it’s decided that this harmless dope Oswald might be a good man to frame for the assassination, which he had nothing to do with. From a post-1973 vantage point, the funniest moment may be when one of the plotters wonders if there isn’t some other way of controlling the situation; has anyone looked into Kennedy’s private life? His associates sadly shake their heads; extensive investigation has determined that there’s not a single thing in the background of that solid family man, John F. Kennedy, that might embarrass him if it were brought to light.

Robert Ryan gives one of his final performances in Executive Action. He plays a right-wing millionaire who invites another tycoon, Will Geer, to come in on an operation organized by a freelance black ops man (Burt Lancaster) to kill the president, before he can “lead the black revolution,” pull out of Vietnam, and install a dynastic succession that would keep him and his brothers in the White House into the 1980s. To judge from the performances of its name actors, the consensus on the set must have either been that right-wing millionaires and the people who plan their coups for them don’t have personalities, or that any expression of personality would have constituted an unacceptable distraction from the project’s instructional value. At the beginning, a title card informs the audience that what’s to follow “is fiction, [but] much of it is also based on documented historical fact. Did the conspiracy we describe actually exist? We do not know. We merely suggest that it could have existed.” If that particular flavor of weasel wording is to your liking and you’d enjoy hearing more of it, find a Republican Congressman and ask if he thinks Barack Obama is a United States citizen.

Executive Action – which includes footage of the fatal ride itself, interspersed with a shot of an obvious Kennedy impersonator literally having his brains blown out – is both tasteless and reverential toward the dead president. William Richert’s Winter Kills (1979) is less reverential and far more fun. Adapted from a novel by Richard {The Manchurian Candidate) Condon, it’s a black comedy, but with real sadness whistling through its bones. It’s a sadness that has less to do with the death of the President and his unrealized ambitions than about what was done to the country, and the country’s lingering difficulties in processing it. The hero, played by Jeff Bridges, is “Nick Kegan,” the disillusioned son of the martyred “President Kegan,” and estranged son of their still-living, and still-powerful, tycoon father (John Huston). In the process of investigating his brother’s death, Bridges gradually realizes that the stew of theories involving the Mafia, the military, and God knows what else actually serves to protect the real culprit – old Pa Kegan, who worked all his life toward installing his son in the White House, only to be dismayed when the younger Kegan morphed into an idealist who “believed” in his patriotic bromides about democracy and working for the greater good of the people.

Winter Kills was Richert’s first film as a director, and he may have had ideas about the lifestyles of the venal rich that he didn’t have the budget to fully realize. Richert had financial backing from a couple of drug dealers looking to break into the movie business. By the time the film had wrapped, one of the producers was in prison, and his less lucky partner had been murdered. (Richert made his second film, The American Success Company, with Bridges and Winter Kills’ leading lady, Belinda Bauer, in order to raise the money to shoot enough additional footage to complete the film after the production filed for bankruptcy.) Even in its finished state, the movie is a scrappy mess, but it has an engagingly bad attitude, and somehow, its own tangled release history seems to enhance its stature. It’s the movie about the Kennedy assassination that shut down production after one of its producers was found handcuffed to a bed and shot to death. The killing (and the shutdown) had nothing to do with Kennedy and everything to do with the fact that the producer was very reckless in who he owed money to, but what a fireworks display a factoid like that can set off in your head. (In an article in Harper’s that appeared around the time the movie was released in 1982, Richard Condon marveled at the tangle of remarkable occurrences connected to the making of the movie, and speculated that its original theatrical release was cut short by the distributor, Avco-Embassy, because it didn’t want to alienate Ted Kennedy on the eve of his presidential run and possibly imperil its own military contracts.

Richert may have been a small-timer compared to a two-fisted mythmaker (and self-mythologizer) like Oliver Stone, but Richert’s wry, satirical paranoia looks a lot like sanity alongside the confusion of attitudes enshrined in Stone’s JFK. A cast-iron relic of a moment when many people seemed to accept the idea that the measure of artistic seriousness for an American filmmaker was how many times he’d been invited to explain himself to Ted Koppel, JFK seems to have its roots – if Stone’s own interviews can be taken at face value – in the director’s daddy issues. (In a nutshell: Stone went to Vietnam after his father broke up with his mother and lost the family fortune, but if somebody hadn’t killed the good president, JFK, there would have been no Vietnam War for him to go to, and then return as a strung-out dopehead.) The most enduring mystery associated with JFK is how Stone’s reputation has a progressive-minded radical survived the movie’s assertion that, when the military-industrial complex and the bad president, LBJ, decided to have Kennedy killed, they farmed the job out to the gays. The movie posits a wildly decadent, sneering homosexual Mafia stationed in New Orleans, with the wicked Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) at its head. (The actual Jim Garrison was forced to pull together a “case” fast after the Times-Picayune published an expose detailing what he was spending the taxpayer’s money on, and he zeroed in on Clay Shaw as a scapegoat mostly because, as a closeted gay man, it would be easy to make it look as if he had something to hide.)

A few years ago, there was a low-budget, Blair Witch-style mock-documentary thriller, Interview with the Assassin, starring Raymond J. Barry as a man who claims to have been the second shooter on the grassy knoll and wants to tell his story to his neighbor, a freelance cameraman; he’s not especially remorseful, but he’s dying, and wants to leave behind a record of what he did – how he changed history “with a twitch of the finger.” Written and directed by Neil Burger, who has since made the big-budget The Illusionist and Limitless, Interview mostly takes what interest it has from Barry’s crusty, tortoise-like performance, but there’s an arresting moment when a ballistics expert who tests a rifle shell for the cameraman is asked what he’d do if the object in his hand confirmed that there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy. I wouldn’t have anything to do with it, says the expert. That’s dangerous information; it could get you killed. (Executive Action ends with pictures of 18 “witnesses” who, it’s said, have been eliminated since the events depicted.)

It turns out that the ballistics expert is on the right track, though it’s remarkable that anyone thinks that not only was Kennedy the victim of a conspiracy, but that, all these decades later, the conspiracy is still in play, waiting to pounce on anyone who would expose its secrets. Maybe the idea that secret knowledge is toxic dies hard. The current movie Parkland, written and directed by Peter Landesman, is a sober, straightforward docudrama account of the shooting of the president and its aftermath; it features good, troubled performances by Paul Giamatti as Abraham Zapruder – a man just trying to make a home movie on an especially eventful day who finds himself tumbling down the rabbit hole of history – and James Badge Dale as the unfortunate brother of Lee Harvey Oswald, and distracting glimpses of other well-known actors – Billy Bob Thornton, Marcia Gay Harden, Jackie Earle Haley – who agreed to participate, despite the fact that Landesman was unable to furnish them with characters to play. (As a priest, Haley emerges from a small crowd, says the last rites over Kennedy’s corpse, and melts back into the crowd. He went all the way to Dallas to do that.) Parkland is meant to be a proper, respectful memorial, but after all this time, simply saying, “This happened here, and this is what it was like” isn’t enough; maybe it was never enough. The perfect, emblematic Kennedy-assassination question is, “What were you doing when you heard the president had been shot?” because it’s not about Kennedy at all; it gives the person on the other end of the microphone a chance to talk about themselves in a way that ties them to the event. That’s the real appeal of assassination-conspiracy fantasies; they don’t really have much to do with Kennedy, who never had the chance to wonder what really happened to him, and why. These movies are for us, because they’re about us, and our fantasies and issues.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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