One of the most iconic amateur films of the last century was Abraham Zapruder’s footage of the JFK assassination. At only 26.6 seconds it has grown to become a visual touchstone of 1960s America, speculated on in thousands of newspaper articles, books, documentaries and YouTube videos. It also became Exhibit 885 in the Warren Commission’s report on the assassination, where individual frames of the film were published in black and white. The peculiar stutter of the footage has the quality of a hallucination, where the eye is carried along by the motorcade towards the final shot: an eruption of blood against the green knoll. This fatal splash of colour, known as the ‘kill frame’, lingers long after JFK’s disappearance below the triple underpass. The film’s brevity suggests an afterlife, where the jolt of the screen appears to extend itself beyond the final frame, where the glow of baseball-green above the President’s head invites a replay. The desire to rewatch the film, as so many historians, journalists and conspiracy theorists have done since 1975, when the footage was first shown on Good Night America, has not only to do with the spectacle of violence but the disbelief that JFK’s youthful promise could be crushed in half a minute.
Although Zapruder’s footage was described by the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1979 as ‘the best available photographic evidence’, there were numerous other amateur films of the event. Immediately following the assassination these were seized by the police as evidence and kept from the public. The most revealing are from bystanders Tina Towner, Robert Hughes and Orville Nix. Thirteen-year-old Tina Towner captured three seconds of footage as JFK’s car turned into Elm Street, while Robert Hughes’s footage shows the motorcade approaching the Texas School Book Depository after turning into Houston Street. Orville Nix had a more direct view from across Dealey Plaza and his film captures JFK moments before the fatal shot. These fragments act as jigsaw pieces that flicker at the edges of the Zapruder footage.
The former-detective Colin McLaren is one of the many conspiracy theorists who have been drawn to the film over the years. His book JFK: The Smoking Gun (2013) advances a compelling narrative about the potential role of secret service agent George Hickey. McLaren’s argument is interesting in that it differs from the notion of a large-scale criminal conspiracy by the CIA, Mafia, KGB, Fidel Castro or Vice-President Lyndon Johnson. Rather, it is a theory of incompetence in handling firearms. In the Zapruder footage Hickey is shown turning 250 degrees. He looks to his left and then to his right, back at the Book Depository. He then turns towards JFK, grabbing his AR-15 rifle. With the rifle poised, Hickey is shown stumbling backwards before the fatal shot. In a secret service report compiled by Chief James Rowley, Hickey’s supervisor Agent Roberts is said to have shouted ‘be careful’ with that rifle. Agent Youngblood, also a member of the team, said that he ‘observed Hickey in the Presidential follow-up car poised on the car with the AR-15 rifle.’ Hickey was the newest and most inexperienced member of the secret service team and on the day of the assassination he was on sniper duty. Seated in an unstable squat position, he was unable to operate the rifle from a moving car while also turning 250 degrees. After Hickey stumbles backwards the footage zooms in on JFK and the agent’s movements are left to take place off screen. McLaren believes that Hickey may have been the accidental assassin.
In an interview for the Paris Review in 1992, Adam Begley asked the novelist Don DeLillo about his fascination with the Zapruder footage. DeLillo responded more generally. ‘Film allows us to examine ourselves in ways earlier societies could not – examine ourselves, imitate ourselves, extend ourselves, reshape our reality. It permeates our lives, this double vision, and also detaches us, turns some of us into actors doing walk-throughs.’ These walk-throughs are abundant on YouTube, where Zapruder’s film has been cannibalised and reborn in distortions of the original. You can watch the film in slow motion, frame by frame, ‘stabilised and enhanced’, and in the many computer reconstructions there is an uncanny resemblance to the graphics of the popular videogame Grand Theft Auto. In DeLillo’s novel Underworld he anticipates digital excess when the character Miles watches the footage at varying speeds on a wall of televisions as part of an art installation. ‘Different phases of the sequence showed on different screens and the spectator’s eye could jump from Zapruder 239 back to 185, and down to the headshot, and over to the opening frames… there were a hundred images running at once.’
J.G Ballard’s experimental novel The Atrocity Exhibition also draws on the Zapruder film in a chapter called ‘The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race’. Ballard’s story highlights the media spectacle generated from the film, where the tone is of a sports commentator providing a recap. ‘The starting point was the Texas Book Depository, where all bets were placed in the Presidential race… Kennedy went downhill rapidly.’ For Ballard the Zapruder film acts an indictment of celebrity culture, where JFK’s death is ‘exhibited’ for entertainment like jolts at a demolition derby. The wide dissemination of stills from the film resulted in JFK becoming a multiple, forever in a race towards the underpass.
Every time we see JFK flinch at the first gunshot it is as though we are watching a mime, a test-film. We wait for reality to erupt but the sound never arrives and we are left to fill it in. There is a correlation in television and radio production called the ‘wild-track’, where every silence is distinctive and unique. On the ‘wild-track’ the sound prior to the silence is left to gather within it, to allow an imprint of past sound.
In Diarmaid MacCulloch’s book Silence: A Christian History (2013), he introduces the idea of a divine ‘wild-track’, where religious piety and mysticism generate distinctive silences. When the Virgin Mary appeared to the village of Knock in the rural west of Ireland, in August 1879, fourteen people witnessed her remain uncharacteristically mute. At Lourdes, in France, 1858, she had announced ‘I am the Immaculate Conception,’ and at Marpingen, Germany, 1876, she was heard to say ‘I am the Immaculately Conceived.’ But three years later at Knock, she remained silent. The Virgin’s Knock appearance is one of the few from the nineteenth century to have gained official recognition from the Vatican, confirmed by a visit from Pope John Paul II on the vision’s centenary in 1979. Being recognised by the church invited only more distinctive silences, where the pious were invited to pray at the pilgrimage site and contemplate the original appearance.
Like the Virgin’s appearance at Knock, JFK’s death on the Zapruder film is always silent. He appears again and again during the replay but his death is never truly heard. Even when sound is added by dikwerf, happydog500, and many others on YouTube, the obvious disjunction makes the film’s original silence even greater. In the silent-film era, there was a peculiar and short-lived phenomenon known as silent-film opera. William Nigh directed a silent-film of the popular comic opera Mignon in 1915, and during screenings audiences were left to fill in their own ‘silent music.’ They had to imagine or recall the sound of an orchestra and voice. In doing so, this silent-music was individual, creating multiple unheard soundtracks for the film. The source for Mignon was Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795), where the protagonist is a pathetic figure. In the operatic adaptation, Mignon delivers one of Goethe’s most famous lyrics: ‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt’ (‘Only he who knows what longing is’). It must have been a disorienting experience to watch the character sing a lyric about longing in silence. In Nigh’s film, the audience gathered in the dark cinema, would have seen Mignon crying out to be free from behind the screen. When Cecil B. DeMille’s silent-film opera Carmen was shown in 1915, there was an attempt to sync music through the use of gramophones and pianos. But the result was a disjunctive mess like that perpetrated by YouTubers adding sound to the Zapruder film. Cinema’s ability to ‘imitate ourselves’ and ‘reshape our reality’, as DeLillo suggests, also had an impact on the development of twentieth century opera. The modernist composer Paul Hindemith, like DeLillo, foresaw film’s ability to become an endless replay. His opera Hin und zurück (There and Back, 1927) imitates film in that it runs forward and then in reverse, telling a beginning to end narrative, only to proceed backwards again.
In 2007 I attended a lunchtime concert of John Cage’s notoriously silent composition 4’33” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. A young musician in a yellow felt-hat shifted restlessly on a bench in front of an upright piano. The keys were exposed although he never fingered them. Towards the end of the performance he began to jerk his head back slightly, which brought laughter from the dozen of us gathered around him. Although the musician’s enthusiasm for the composition was unmistakable, the piece was missing any subtlety between action and tension. At the first performance of the piece in 1952, however, pianist David Tudor’s understated gestures left the audience spellbound. Tudor’s lack of action created the drama. In a large concert hall in Woodstock, New York, he opened the piano lid and sat still for thirty seconds. He then closed and opened the lid again twice at specific intervals in the score. When the piece ended, he simply walked offstage.
Cage gave a lecture on his compositional process in 1951 where he said: ‘Silence cannot be heard in terms of pitch or harmony: it is heard in terms of time length.’ 4’33”s seemingly empty time span is in fact a theatrical ‘wild-track’, where sound and silence develop a call and response. Within the silence of the piece, the before and after sounds, outside the time-block, are gathered inside. Incidental noises such as the whisper of audiences or the squirm of a musician’s trousers, also enter the time-block to create an interchangeability between silence and sound. If we think again of religion, Cage’s emphasis on silence as a time-block is like in the Gospel According to Matthew, where Christ’s temptation in the wilderness is described as lasting forty days and forty nights. This specification of time is a poetic approximation. Christ, if we accept Matthew’s account, would surely not have been in the wilderness for exactly that time. Rather the time-block of forty days and nights serves to mark out a distinctive silence. If we imagine Christ’s temptation to have taken place in the desert, as it does in Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), the call and response between Christ and Satan is the rupture of an inner silence, of Christ’s torment. Silence here is a ‘negative theology’ because there is no word, no logos. Instead, words must come from outside. In the early development of the Christian Church negative theologies of silence were based on understanding the divine as something that God was not, rather than what he is. This approach to divinity is also seen in Matthew when Christ replies to Satan’s taunts through quotations from the Old Testament, or Tanakh, which leaves Satan in silence.
On the morning of JFK’s state funeral on November 25, 1963, Russell Baker wrote in The New York Times that despite the one million people who lined the funeral procession, ‘silence was pervasive.’ Not since the remembrances in 1919 of the untold numbers who died in the First World War was there such a significant public silence. Fifty years after Abraham Zapruder stood on top of the concrete pedestal along Elm Street, steadied with the help of his receptionist Marilyn Sitzman, his film has become one of the most significant scraps of evidence to illuminate a historical moment that can never be heard. The film’s silence captures something of the mute crowds on the morning of the funeral, a veil placed over the promise of America’s post-war idyll. Out of this silence, long before the babel of YouTube, came the widespread paranoia about government and a loss of trust in the news media. It prefigured the ever-growing conspiracy theories that continue to surround the attack of September 11. The overwhelming public suspicion that accompanied the Warren Commission’s report laid the groundwork for the hostile reaction to the 9/11 Commission Report in 2002. Just as the Zapruder film has been pored over for decades, footage of Building 7’s collapse has generated multiple theories that it was the result of a controlled demolition. Rather than being solely the result of crash damage, the theories suggest that explosives were installed inside the buildings in advance. The shocking footage of September 11, however, always includes sound. From the many news cameras and amateur films available, it is possible to hear the roar of United Airlines Flight 175 as it hits the South Tower and the horror of its collapse 56 minutes later.
But with JFK’s death on the Zapruder film we are left to listen in vain for the steady burr of the motorcade, the half-cock of George Hickey’s rifle, and the sound of a fatal gunshot that is forever withheld.