Thursday, November 3, 2011

Through the Looking Glass: Depicting the Conspiracy to Kill John F. Kennedy in Libra and JFK

The assassination of American President John F. Kennedy is a watershed event in American history that has provoked people to question their own beliefs and those of their government. Yet, for such a highly publicized affair there are still many uncertainties that surround the actual incident. Countless works of fiction and non-fiction have been created concerning the subject, but have done little in aiding our understanding of the assassination and the events surrounding it. As Don DeLillo comments in his novel Libra, "Powerful events breed their own network of inconsistencies." DeLillo also makes this observation in an essay entitled, "American Blood" in Rolling Stone magazine, which contains the groundwork for issues that he would later explore in more detail in Libra. DeLillo's novel depicts the events leading up to and after the assassination like a densely constructed film complete with jump cuts and multiple perspectives. This creates a strong parallel between Libra and Oliver Stone's film, JFK (1991) which covers much of the same ground and uses many of the same techniques but to achieve different conclusions.

Libra and JFK present the assassination as a powerful event constructed by its conspirators to create confusion with its contradictory evidence, to then bury this evidence in the Warren Commission Report, which in turn manifests multiple interpretations of key figures like Lee Harvey Oswald. Libra examines the conspiracy to kill Kennedy as an ambiguous occurrence filled with many coincidences, loose ends, and viewpoints; in contrast, JFK offers a more structured examination of the conspiracy from one person's point of view where everything fits together to reveal a larger, more frightening picture implicating the most powerful people in the United States government. Libra and JFK are works which present the Kennedy assassination as a moment that contains many discrepancies and misleading facts, but differ in their presentation of how this affects our perception of the event.

THE PERCEPTION OF HISTORY

"Beyond this confusion of data, people have developed a sense that history has been secretly manipulated." – Don DeLillo

For DeLillo, the Kennedy assassination is an important event not only in his life, but as an author. The profound effect it had on DeLillo is evident in an interview where he states that "it's possible I wouldn't have become the kind of writer I am if it weren't for the assassination." The assassination left him with the feeling that he had lost a "sense of manageable reality" which made him more aware of "elements like randomness and ambiguity and chaos." It is these feelings that DeLillo would later convey in the character of Nicholas Branch in Libra. Branch must come to terms with his own feelings of confusion and self-doubt while investigating the death of Kennedy and the conspiracy that surrounds it. DeLillo expresses these feelings of randomness and ambiguity in the incidences leading up to the assassination. They are often presented in an uncertain way to convey the conflict between the facts, the eyewitness accounts, and the memories that often contradict one another, obscuring the truth:

“We still haven't reached any consensus on the specifics of the crime: the number of gunmen, the number of shots, the location of the shots, the number of wounds in the President's body – the list goes on and on. Beyond this confusion of data, people have developed a sense that history has been secretly manipulated.”

As DeLillo wisely points out in this interview, history has been manipulated so that we can no longer tell the difference between fact and fiction. There is a passage in Libra where Lee Harvey Oswald gets into a shoving match with some Anti-Castro Cubans and not even Oswald can remember how it was started. There is a sense that not only the reader is being manipulated, but the characters as well. This is apparent when DeLillo writes, "Lee felt he was in the middle of his own movie. They were running this thing just for him." Oswald recognizes that the boundaries between what is real and what is not are beginning to blur. The simplest facts, like his run in with Anti-Castro Cubans, "elude authentication" because the origins of the event are unknown and we are left to theorize what the motivations were for it happening.

JFK also creates this blur of reality and fiction by mixing real footage with staged footage so that it becomes difficult to discern what really happened and what is merely speculation. Oliver Stone does this in order to create what he calls "a countermyth to the myth of the Warren Commission because a lot of the original facts were lost in a very shoddy investigation." Like Libra, JFK presents the incident between Oswald (Gary Oldman) and the Anti-Castro Cubans as a simple event which becomes obscured by multiple interpretations. Stone begins the scene in 16mm, black and white film stock and then switches to Super 8mm in color with Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) narrating the whole scene. Stone is presenting three different points of views in this scene; one in 16mm black and white, one in Super 8mm color, and Garrison's own narration:

“It was a public event, it was seen by people, and to this day there are different versions of what happened that day. Were the Cubans really angry, or was it a stunt? Was it a staged arrest? We wanted to fracture the perception of it as a mere flashback from across the street.” – Stone

The change to Super 8mm symbolizes a different view or reading of the event as reconstructed in the mind of the film's protagonist, Jim Garrison. This is similar to what the characters in DeLillo's Libra experience, except that there is no single protagonist as there is in JFK. Instead, Stone creates different points of views or layers through the extensive use of flashbacks within flashbacks. This technique conveys the notion of confusion and conflict within evidence that Libra creates through its various protagonists.

THE WARREN COMMISSION REPORT

"Branch thinks this is megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he'd moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred." – Libra

One of the major sources of this confusion of data and information stems from the Warren Commission Report which DeLillo describes as "a ruined city of trivia." This encyclopedic tome is a microcosm of the assassination itself. It takes simple facts and scatters them about to create a convoluted path that both Nicholas Branch and Jim Garrison must navigate in order to find the truth. As Garrison explains, "It's all broken down and spread around and you read and the point gets lost." Garrison begins to interview people who testified in the report only to find that, as one witness points out, "It was a fabrication from start to finish." Within the report there are contradictions and forged testimonies supporting the government's theory that Oswald acted alone and that there was no conspiracy. Like the assassination itself, the Warren Report contains all the facts but distorts and presents them in such an unorganized fashion that any attempt to piece together a coherent narrative or conspiracy is "like drowning." It is up to Garrison to make sense of this mess and establish a coherent narrative which he does at the conclusion of the film when he presents his case in court.

In Libra, Branch also realizes how confusing and misleading the Warren Report is to its reader. He understands that this is its purpose:

“He questions everything, including the basic suppositions we make about our world of light and shadow, solid objects and ordinary sounds, and our ability to measure such things, to determine weight, mass and direction, to see things as they are, recall them clearly, be able to say what happened.”

Like the actual events themselves, the Warren Report blurs the line between fact and fiction so that the truth is concealed. The whole notion of a conspiracy seems uncertain because no one fact supports it, but rather leads to even more questions and theories that must be sifted through. DeLillo's Libra presents on one side the conspirators, but contrasts this with Branch, the investigator, who must make sense of the Warren Commission Report. The facts clearly aid the conspirators who, with some convenient coincidences, like Kennedy's decision to visit Dallas, create a puzzling trail for Branch to follow.

OSWALD

"'Lee Harvey Oswald' often seems a secret design worked out by men who will never surface – a procedural diagram, a course in fabricated biography." – Libra

To this extent, the conspirators even create figures like Lee Harvey Oswald, who are ambiguous in nature. From the start, the conspirators plan to put together someone, to "build an identity, a skein of persuasion and habit, ever so subtle. He wanted a man with believable quirks." The conspirators construct multiple Oswalds to support a lone assassin theory:

“We want to leave an imprint of Oswald's activities starting today and ending when the operation is complete. A series of incidents. We want to establish Oswald as a man that people will later remember. What if Oswald doesn't cooperate? We create our own Oswald. A second, a third, a fourth. This plan goes into effect no matter what he does after Mexico City. Mackey wants Oswald all over Texas.”

By creating several Oswalds, the conspirators effectively create a metaphoric room of mirrors where the real Oswald cannot be separated from the many fakes. This confusion works well as Branch realizes, "They all look like Oswald. Branch thinks they look more like Oswald than the figure in profile, officially identified as him." Branch is presented with facts about Oswald that contradict themselves. Oswald appears in several places at the same time in a rather crude fashion so that Branch no longer knows what to believe. DeLillo shows how these multiple images of Oswald, created by the conspirators, are rough but effective in masking the real man. Branch is able to separate the multiple Oswalds, but this still does not get him any closer to the heart of the conspiracy or the true nature of Oswald. It only makes him "wary of these cases of cheap coincidence. He's beginning to think someone is trying to sway him toward superstition. He wants a thing to be what it is. Can't a man die without the ensuing ritual of a search for patterns and links?" Branch has become tired of sorting through these lies and longs for a more structured path where everything is black and white.

This structured path lies in JFK as Garrison and his team also sort through the multiple Oswalds. Stone presents many of the same events as described in Libra while also crosscutting footage of an unknown person piecing together a photograph. This in turn is crosscut with real photographs of Oswald and staged shots of Stone's Oswald. As the mysterious photograph is completed, it is revealed to be the famous Life magazine cover of Oswald with the rifle that supposedly killed Kennedy and that "pretty much convicted Oswald in the public eye," as one character observes. This mixing of footage, both real and staged, symbolizes Oswald's various pasts, both real and faked. By showing the famous Life photograph being doctored, Stone is using that as a metaphor for Oswald's past. On the surface it looks believable, but upon closer scrutiny there is a more complex story as Garrison wisely notes, "They put Oswald together from day one." This is true both figuratively as the montage of fake Oswalds demonstrates and literally as the construction of the famous photograph illustrates.

FILM TECHNIQUE

"We used a lot of different film stocks and formats to question the nature of reality. To a large degree, JFK is not a political film; it's philosophical. It shows how the truth is fractured until we don't know what reality is." – Oliver Stone

DeLillo is an author clearly aware of film techniques: the energy they contain and the power they convey. This is clearly established in his essay, "American Blood" where he states, "Violence itself seems to cause a warp in the texture of things. There are jump cuts, blank spaces, an instant in which information leaps from one energy level to another." This effect is used in describing the death of Kennedy. DeLillo presents four different perspectives of the event: one from Oswald's point of view, a second from another hired assassin, a third from a woman on the grassy knoll, and a fourth from Nellie Connally, the First Lady of Texas at the time and sitting in the car when Kennedy was shot. DeLillo effectively jumps from one perspective to another in order to show the assassination from all the crucial vantage points; from the casual observer, to someone right in the motorcade, to one of the assassins. Each jump cut causes "a warp in the texture of things" so that there is a feeling of chaos intruding on the event. As each account is presented, information "leaps from one energy level to another" and a disordered view of the assassination is revealed. By presenting these various perspectives, DeLillo is commenting on how an event can be interpreted differently by many people so that there is no clear cut reading.

JFK adheres to DeLillo's above statement in an even more precise fashion with its depiction of the assassination. Stone mixes real footage of Kennedy's motorcade with his own footage, while also using various film stocks to show the multiple interpretations of a public event that was viewed by many people. Stone jumps from Kennedy's arrival in Dallas to his motorcade heading for Dealey Plaza with several quick edits. He also crosscuts footage of a clock at Dealey Plaza to show that time is running out for Kennedy, he will soon be killed. This quick rhythm of editing creates an anxious mood and the tension increases. The film cuts to black followed by the sound of a gun being cocked and then fired. Kennedy has been shot. A black and white shot of a rooftop with birds flying into the sky appears with the sound of the gun shot echoing into the distance. Stone has taken what DeLillo has said in his essay and translated it visually. Stone "jump cuts" from the footage of the motorcade to a "blank space" for an instant so that "information leaps from one energy level to another" as DeLillo puts it in "American Blood." We go from the energy of the assassination to the shockwaves that ripple out by introducing the film's protagonist, Jim Garrison and showing his reaction to what has happened. This is the leap that DeLillo writes about it in his essay, but depicted visually. By mirroring DeLillo's statement with this sequence Stone creates the strongest link between his film, which seems conscious of DeLillo's essay, and Libra.

Libra and JFK are important works in the sense that they accurately portray the assassination of John F. Kennedy as a complex public event surrounded by chaos and confusion. Both works present an intricate conspiracy at the source of the killing, but diverge at how they present it. Libra reaches the conclusion that the conspiracy to kill Kennedy "succeeded in the short term due mainly to chance." DeLillo presents several points of view, ranging from the individual conspirators, who create a confusing web of information, and elaborate figures like Lee Harvey Oswald, in order to dissuade characters like Nicholas Branch from trying to make sense of it all. The conspiracy starts as a small affair discussed by a few men that grows into a large chaotic web that connects all the characters through chance and coincidence. JFK, on the other hand, contains one main protagonist who exposes the conspiracy to be an intricately constructed coup d'état. Stone does not have the time to go into as much detail as DeLillo's novel and as a result paints his canvas with broad brushstrokes and powerful images in an attempt to create "a countermyth to the myth of the Warren Commission." DeLillo opts for a more intellectual and detailed examination of the assassination as one character in Libra explains, "Let's devote our lives to understanding this moment, separating the elements of each crowded second." JFK takes a larger, confrontational stance by boldly implicating the government in the conspiracy and the mainstream media in conspiring to cover it up. Stone is using the persuasive power of film to reach the largest number of people he can in order to wake them up and to reveal how they have been deceived by higher powers. There is no mistaking the importance of the assassination of Kennedy in American culture. Based on the excitement that surrounded Stone's film, the American public was still greatly interested in the event with more and more people believing in a plot to kill Kennedy. Both Libra and JFK are proof that Kennedy's death continues to intrigue and interest people who are more open to the idea of a conspiracy that these works openly advocate.


SOURCES

Crowdus, Gary. "Clarifying the Conspiracy: An Interview with Oliver Stone." Cineaste May 1992: 25-27.

DeCurtis, Anthony. "An Outsider in This Society: An Interview with Don DeLillo." The Fiction of Don DeLillo. Ed. Frank Lentricchia. Durham: Duke University Press, 1990: 281-304.

DeLillo, Don. "American Blood." Rolling Stone. December 8, 1983: 21-74.
--- . Libra. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.

Riordan, James. Stone -- The Controversies, Excesses, and Exploits of a Radical Filmmaker. New York: Hyperion, 1995.


Smith, Gavin. "The Camera For Me Is An Actor: An Interview with Oliver Stone." Film Comment. January-February 1994: 26-43.

4 comments:

  1. Wow! What an in-depth, comparative analysis of these two works. Certainly, I'm getting and will be reading 'Libra' by Don DeLillo based on what you've written here. Well done, J.D. Many thanks.

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  2. Outstanding, J.D.! I always enjoy when you compare two works. Great analysis. I really enjoyed the focus on Oswald, and the differences in approaches.

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  3. A great article, J.D.! JFK's one of my favorites- American history careening through a terrifying labyrinth, and one of the best-edited films of all time. I can't say I've read LIBRA, but I believe you've inspired me to check it out one of these days. You may have read it already, but I also highly recommend Ellroy's AMERICAN TABLOID.

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  4. le0pard13:

    Thank you for the kind words, my friend. I think you will really dig LIBRA. It's a fascinating read to be sure and I really like DeLillo's take. Not to mention, James Ellroy cited it as his fave book on the JFK assassination.


    Brent:

    Thanks! I am a huge fan of Stone's film and it was interesting to see the parallels between it and DeLilllo's novel.


    Sean Gill:

    I couldn't agree with you more, re: JFK. Insane editing in that one. It must've taken for ever! I think you will like LIBRA, esp. if you dug AMERICAN TABLOID (which I also love). It is much more cerebral than Ellroy's novel but, as I mentioned above, he cites DeLillo's book as his fave take on the assassination.

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