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Commemorating the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s death, this commentary was excerpted from “Shooting Kennedy: JFK And The Culture Of Images” by art historian David M. Lubin of Wake Forest University:
IT MAY BE THE saddest movie ever made. And only 20-six seconds long. It’s sad in the way that classical tragedy is sad, its hero tumbling from on high. Yet there’s no catharsis here, no beam of illumination amid the darkness. From Hamlet or Oedipus we come away with self-knowledge, having seen our flaws write large in the lives of the doomed prince and king. But what does this modern tragedy teach? Only that even the best, most powerful, most charismatic of us, shining in glory, riding in triumph, may be felled without notice by the meteorite from the sky.
The movie is sad in other ways. It’s a domestic tragedy. A man is stricken suddenly and inexplicably, and his wife turns to him in befuddlement, not recognising his plight. His elbows fly up and his hands jerk uncontrollably. She hastens to his side but is powerless to restore him to himself. Like some Halloween skeleton dangled on strings, he performs a demented danse macabre with those pumping arms and wagging hands, his nervous system twitching out of control, while she looks on aghast and makes a futile effort to stay his flailing appendages.
And then he’s gone, the husband of 10 years’ time, the right half of his head a scarlet starbust as his body lurches toward her in a wicked parody of conjugal attraction. If the swift and brutal demise of a public hero is sad, so, this film implicitly claims, is the ultimate futility of love, marriage, and companionship.
We might call it a nihilist film. Or existentialist. Or dada. As I show later in this chapter, the 20-six-second home movie made by the Dallas dressmaker Abraham Zapruder amply embodies the modernist art, theatre, and philosophy emanating from advanced circles in Europe and America in the postwar era. But for now I want to focus on its sadness.
It is sad, too, because it is a home movie, and home movies, no matter how joyful in subject or lighthearted in tone, ultimately suffuse their viewers with sadness. Let me explain. The first movies ever filmed were, in essence, home movies, not because they featured domestic subjects and settings but because amateurs made them. Two businessmen from Lyons, the brothers Lumière, invented a device for taking the projecting moving pictures. In the late summer of 1895 they set it up in front of their father’s factory to film workers leaving at the end of a shift. The movie lasts but seconds, and nothing of consequence occurs. Workers simply pass through the plant gates and walk forward, in the direction of the camera.
Still, in its straightforward account of effervescent everyday life, this minuscule movie amounts to a memento mori, a reminder of human mortality. However vibrant the scene, however full of quotidian vivacity, it’s a document of death, for its protagonists died long ago and their lives and way of living will never come again. Even though suppliers and advertisers of home movie merchandise have done everything in their power to promote the idea that home movies or videos are about fun and joy and good times, all the same, they are melancholy documents. They make plainly visible the decay that inevitably besets us all. They remind us that we rust.
The 80-four-year-old Louis Lumière reminisced on the eve of his death about those first motion pictures that he and his brother, Auguste, had filmed so long ago, including one entitled L’Arrive du train en gare (The train enters the station). That film, he recalled, “which I took at the station of La Ciotat in 1895, shows on the platform a little girl who is skipping along, one hand held by her mother and the other by her nurse. The child is my eldest daughter, afterwards Mrs. Tratieux, and she is now four times a grandmother.”
Home movies carry an aura of almost instant pastness that commercial films go to extraordinary lengths to erase. Even when they take place in distant history and attempt to re-create that history in the most persuasive manner possible, theatrical features need to have a contemporary feel and sheen about them to succeed at the box office. Just as scary rides at the amusement park must not be so dilapidated as to be truly scary, Hollywood movies about olden times must not seem truly old. Audiences prefer re-creations of the past to look brand-new. That is why wordsmiths, hairdressers, costumers, set designers, cinematographers, and sound track composers are well paid for doing their job, which is to render the past palatable to contemporary tastes. (Claudette Colbert’s tightly curled coiffure marks her version of Cleopatra as a stylish product of the early 1930s as distinctly as Elizabeth Taylor’s hearvily lacquered, pseudo-hieroglyphyic hairstyle bespeaks the hairspray aesthetic of the early 1960s.) Home movies, which, to be sure, concern themselves with the present, not the past, don’t boast such high “production values.” If they did, they’d no longer be home movies. Consequently they age almost immediately.
Thus, even if the Zapruder film did not bear witness to the assassination of a leader, the violent destruction of a human body, and the wreckage of a marriage, it would still be sad, confronting the viewer with
le temps perdu. Madame Tratieux, a child when that train pulled into the station, will never be so again no matter how often the film is screened, nor will President and Mrs. Kennedy ever ride again in glory through the streets of Dallas on a bright November day except in the opening seconds of the dressmaker’s home movie.
Republished with permission from “Shooting Kennedy: JFK And The Culture Of Images” by Professor David M. Lubin of Wake Forest University.
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