On November 22, 1963, young women’s apparel-maker Abraham Zapruder recorded the most infamous 26-second film in American history. Three weeks later video instant replay was used for the first time in a football game between Army and Navy. America and its true pastime have been in permanent replay ever since.
What goes undiscussed about Zapruder’s film is that it is ghastly. To watch the crucial act advance frame by frame is to experience a horror unsoftened by the passage of four plus decades. One is conditioned to hear ominous music. Or a quickening of “cuts.” These are common observations from an ordinary moviegoer. What does not bear viewing and reviewing is the dehiscence of a human head. Exencephelation. This transports the film from the awful to the godawful.
In the collective photographic consciousness there are almost no “head shots.” Kennedy’s is certainly the most famous and infamous. Second is certainly Eddie Adams’ image of the execution of a South Vietnamese lieutenant on a Saigon street. And then nothing comes to mind. Thank god. Why the paucity? The gut ventures an answer the brain is embarrassed to articulate. Shooting the head is bad. In the realm of transcultural prohibitions it’s on the order of incest. Violence, needless to say, is a necessary purifier and enlivener of culture. Violence to the head interrupts culture. The dead may no longer be honored as their image can’t be stomached. And what’s the point of violence if you can’t honor the dead? Violence becomes pointless. In life as in art, we do not bear irreparable violence to the face. Today’s special effects director is capable of putting exit wounds in whatever body part he could wish and still Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington will be felled down by torso shots—as James Cagney and Paul Muni were 70 years before. Below the neck is violence. Above the neck is horror. Violence clearly is American but horror isn’t.
It is therefore doubly dreadful that our first cinematic President died in such a way. Kennedy was a hunk, as has been chronicled ad infinitum, and he would have delighted in knowing it. He hammered Nixon with handsomeness. Berliners swooned when he claimed to be jelly-filled and dusted with sugar. The country was asked what could be done for it, and a date was made with the Moon. All on camera and especially easy on the eyes. A macabre symmetry obtains that film should capture his end. And that which was ended was that which engendered him: his visage. Lincoln, too, must have looked a sight moments after Booth leapt to the stage of Ford’s Theater and declaimed in Latin how always this happens to tyrants. And if the audience had been allowed to leave their cell phones on we might have some grisly video of that. But Lincoln wasn’t the matinee idol that was Booth’s brother Edwin. And Jack Kennedy too. American Presidents should not be murdered, especially the handsome ones.
Perhaps it is the film-idol quality that demanded his death become a ‘sensation.’ That he was a prodigious philanderer is well-chronicled too, but unlike his presidential successors in that arena, he didn’t keep it on the down-low. Seducing Marilyn Monroe was not subtle, nor bedding the moll of a Mafia capo, scandals both that were enacted on the set of Camelot. Clearly he enjoyed ‘drama.’ And clearly we do too. Is it conceivable that a man who lived such a life—accidentally and intentionally—should have died in an assassination that had no ‘sub-plot?’ And is it not fitting that the source of doubt of that assassination would be precisely that document that preserved it so naively?
By bureaucratico-litigational standards, the Warren Report arrived with lightning speed. It took barely a year to conclude that three bullets were shot at the President that day and they all came from the rifle of Lee Harvey Oswald. And shortly after that 900-page decision was rendered it began to crumble. Beginning with Jim Garrison and continuing up to and beyond Oliver Stone, the Kennedy Assassination does not exist, only the Kennedy Assassination Conspiracy. Tracing the etiology of this tradition is appropriate for a longer and more fastidious treatment. What matters is that the slow motorcade passing through Dealey Plaza before being punctuated at frame 313 is a private video embedded on everyone’s internal webpage, to hyperextend a metaphor. The cultural meme that came to accompany this video is the incantation from Oliver Stone’s JFK: “Back and to the left. Back and to the left.” The film itself is the source of mistrust. All the ancillary “evidence”—the Dict-a-phone tape, the migrant workers, the echo from the bridge, the woman in the red raincoat etc. etc. etc. etc., (the et etceteras have etceteras)—all of it becomes subsumed under a single “observation” made two-thirds of the way through Zapruder’s home movie: the bullet cannot have come from this direction because Kennedy’s head went in that direction. Look at it. Look at the film. It’s all there. The prevarications of the State can be countermanded if we the vigilant many will but observe them and halt the progression of injustice in its first slouching footprint.
Just look at the film.
George Carlin remarked famously on football and its distinction from the older American Pastime. Baseball is paradisiacal. There is no clock. The field is a diamond. The foul lines extend to eternity. Players never touch each other. The consummate play occurs when the ball passes to a place beyond the reach of men. Everyone then is safe at home.
Football is constituted of no such beatitudes. Another authentic American—George Will—wrote that it combined the two worst aspects of American life: violence punctuated by committee meetings. He was being charitable.
Football comprises a gallery of American ills: corporate espionage, racial profiling, drug abuse, bad retirement plans, inflated middle management, computer graphics, etc. etc. etc. And yeah, it’s rough. Most signal, however, and that which makes football verily American is this: it’s stuffed with additives. A sixty-minute game can take 4 hours of TV time. The Baltimore Ravens had 80 plus players on its roster last year—to go with 20 coaches. Some special teamers will take the field perhaps three times a game, every game, for their entire career, as their position dictates. The blooper reels are full of players running into cameramen, into cheerleaders, into stationary bikes, into sports-beverage tanks. In no other sport is half the coaching staff housed in an observation booth several stories above the field. In no other sport do key players review faxes during the game. In no other sport not involving machines do the coaches wear headsets. All sports involve downtime but in no sport is downtime also gametime as it is in football. Such is its special texture and thus does it so appositely mirror the saline-injected culture which gave birth to it.
Above all, there will be measurement and there will be justice. Both will be forensic. Again we refer to the Older Pastime for a comparison. Baseball’s crucial implied geometry—the strike zone—whence emerges all its dynamism, is an assumption, a home plate umpire’s chimera whose real shape is not a box limned by the plate and the batter’s shoulders, but more an undulating prolate roof of a Pizza Hut. If the strike zone were empirically enforced, pitchers’ ERA’s would move a decimal point to the right. Football brooks no implied boundaries. The battlefield must be won at least ten yards at a time. To assess this progress we enlist our downmarkers. The only other sports where rulers are used are Olympic ones where people throw things, javelins or themselves for instance. Measuring is the game. But football looks like a crime-scene and the men who bring out the chains CSI agents. They have come on at the end of a scrum where eleven huge men unsuccessfully tried to fake out eleven other huge men and something went wrong. The ball got mishandled and strategy evaporated. Everybody piled on and then the magic happened. The refs blew the play dead and somehow mystically from the innermost recesses of this heaving testudo a ball was produced, like a quail egg or a foundling child. Possession was determined and position ascertained. The ball was translated within an arcsecond along the same latitude and finally brought to rest to be examined by the side judges. They trot out like Vatican emissaries and measure the unintended forward progress of the ball. The offense, intentional or otherwise, is a half chain-link short. Fourth and one.
To add to these dilations a coach throws a red challenge flag! Review the visible evidence! There has been a mistake in the proceedings. Somehow, heaven forfend, an error occurred amongst all the hashmarks, the measuring sticks, and the diligent referees. Let us defer to our cameras and while there is deference let us watch six minutes of commercials for inexpensive square pizzas. When we return the head ref still broods beneath his mobile-hooded chamber and we watch (anxiously, in theory) inset boxes of already disappointed coaches—disappointed already by the errancy of justice on one side and the delay of its prosecution on the other. Fortunately the play stands and we have only taken nine minutes to reconfirm what was stated in the first place. Justice has been rendered.
America is a nation of industries and in the 1960s we kick-started two of our most beloved: that of football and that of conspiracy. They had already been around awhile but in that decade they got a huge investment of cultural capital.
If St. Paul had it that faith is the evidence of things unseen then the Zapruder film is his American antinomy: the ocular proof that inspires incredulity. Without question it is healthy for the self and the body politic to distrust power and the beings who at this moment have it. Power corrupts, power wants to stay in power. It is an impulse to be reigned. But it is a small precipitate step to the gunmetal Nissan Sentra whose back windshield is decorated with stickers from various East Coast academies and whose bumper bears the admonition “They Are Lying to You.” There is something pathological in asserting a priori the existence of “the cover-up.” It is the inverse of religion and Absolutism. It is the zealous denunciation of a “straight story” ipso facto without first referring to evidence. The culture sadly embodied by Abraham Zapruder’s nightmare-inducing film also inverts St. Ignatius of Loyola: “Perform the acts of evidence and the evidence will come.”
The contrary motion in this country—and every ideological movement has its counterpoint—occurs in its one true church: the football stadium. It is our rock and on this rock we build our Sunday afternoons. Football is reliable, at times unbearable, and a bulwark against uncertainty. The action stays within boundaries and no matter what—no matter what—all mistakes will be corrected. Evidence will be reviewed and there will be no question as to the correct call—or at least that is the premise and the promise. Apart from the Fallen outside world where inherited sin has paid out in contaminated history, ensconced in our sporting sno-globes with their sun-roofs so God can see His Country’s teams, retrospective adjudication takes place at glacial paces. That the outcome of this Seahawks-Buccaneers game should enter the historical record inviolate. No amount of litigation or appellate process spared to establish certitude in the midst of mere action.
Never mind that the result be satisfying or even correct. It is the effort that counts. So we wait. And wait. And watch the second game from the West Coast too. But ultimately what bites our American intentions on the ass is the need to make a business out of it.
William O’Hara is a native of Washington, D.C. and a lifelong Redskins fan. He lives in Los Angeles.
William O'Hara's "Insistent Replay," an investigation of the relationship between the two proud American industries of football and conspiracy, appeared in our fall2008 issue. His poetry appeared in our spring2008 issue. He lives in Los Angeles.