The Sticking Place

JFK: The Question of Propaganda
by Amos Vogel

Anyone concerned with cinema as art in all its dimensions — aesthetic, political, social, ideological — must welcome Oliver Stone’s extraordinary new work. Amidst a morass of insipid “entertainment films,” it bursts upon us as a powerful token of what cinema might be. And yet, even a partisan of this work cannot refrain from realizing that it raises more questions than intended.

Few people still take seriously the Warren Commission’s hasty conclusion that Oswald was the sole assassin. While the parameters, cast of characters, and ultimate goals have not been clearly established, the fact that there was a conspiracy — a high probability in the minds of many re searchers, even at the time — has now become evident.

Stone’s film seems to offer a tremendously persuasive and viscerally unnerving summation and elucidation of a very large number of contradictions and omissions in the Warren report, including the well-known doubts and mysteries: the number of assassins and shots, the autopsy, missing X-rays, the disappearance of JFK’s brain, and the role of Oswald and some shadowy individuals clearly tied to the events. Particularly disturbing are the absence of any record of Oswald’s all-night police interrogation after his arrest and the equally startling removal from public scrutiny for 75 years of vast congressional, police, FBI, CIA, and Warren Commission records and testimony. In fact, the tremendous popular reaction to Stone’s disquieting work has already contributed to an early opening of these previously closed files.

It is to Stone’s credit that he has brought knowledge of the case to the consciousness of a new generation ignorant of the facts. Simultaneously, it is to the media’s eternal shame that they have launched a concerted at tack on Stone’s credibility, perpetuating their previous attacks on those refusing to take the single-assassin theory seriously. Buttons are once again being pushed to discredit those who raise questions.

Unfortunately, we cannot leave it at this. To begin with, the film’s basic premise is that Kennedy was assassinated as the result of a conspiracy involving the highest circles of government, Johnson, the CIA, the FBI, the Pentagon, and the industrial-military complex because JFK wanted to end the Vietnam and Cold Wars as well as the campaign against Cuba.

Stone’s romantic evaluation of Kennedy as a liberal Democrat is at variance with historical facts showing Kennedy fully committed to the imperialist aims of American foreign policy. Conflicting evidence about his plans for Vietnam leave historians either doubting his intention to withdraw or pointing to Kennedy’s expanding commitments to South Vietnam. Nor did he ever plan to withdraw almost 20,000 U.S. “advisers” (who played a leading role in the war) or the American fliers who were covertly bombing the Viet-Cong. Simultaneously, Kennedy secretly expanded our defense spending and, at great risk, forced the USSR into a humiliating withdrawal of its nuclear weapons from Cuba.

This basic flaw in Stone’s film — indeed, its very premise — also draws attention to his methodology and brilliantly illustrates why an analysis of content must always be accompanied by an analysis of form: the politics of aesthetics. For Stone’s tour-de-force is a masterful compendium of the aesthetic parameters of Hollywood “political” cinema, created with the full resources of a major Hollywood studio cynically bankrolling whatever promises large returns.

With the most advanced tools of production at his disposal, Stone is one of the few filmmakers who can exploit them to the fullest. Although there are some relaxed, even contemplative scenes employing the ordinary codes of classical Hollywood narrative progression, the film is characterized by a frenetic, almost hysterical tempo, within which individual images — as if pistol shots — are fired at the spectator, object of a relent less machine-gun attack. This insistent onslaught ultimately leads to a kind of psychological numbness, both because of the incessant sensationalism of the images and the simultaneous aural shocks perpetrated on the spectator. The images (by Robert Richardson) are manipulated and under constant attack from within by being thrust at us very rapidly in color or in black and white, in clashing fake-grainy or sharp-focus images, in newsreel or simulated documentary shots (upstaging Pontecorvo’s great faked newsreel footage in The Battle of Algiers), captured by a frenetic camera that rarely stands still, constantly changing angles or distances, naturalistic shots followed by almost abstract ones, ever-changing view points from which action is presented, unexpected, unorthodox transitions from long to medium shots to close-ups, swish-pans, tracking and dolly shots. This film is forever in motion.

Due to the extremely brief duration of most of the shots — a second or less — the image is frequently withdrawn (more accurately, yanked away) from us before it is has been fully absorbed or understood. Instead, it is instantaneously supplanted by another, initially often equally mystifying image. Quite a few of the images indeed remain opaque, decipher able perhaps only upon a second viewing.

The effects of this visual onslaught are doubled by an over powering soundtrack, in which speech, dialogue (often deliberately overlapping, a la Welles, for greater verisimilitude), music (by John Williams), narration, staccato drums, single notes, almost abstract sound effects, shockingly loud noises of rifle shots, and crowd reactions are closely cut to the visuals, relentlessly catapulting the film-sound machine forward.

The outcome of a visual-verbal attack of such magnitude, intensity, and particularly duration is an overwhelmed, shackled spectator, compulsively, helplessly searching for connections, for clarity, for comprehension; have we seen what we think we saw? Did Stone just assert that such and such occurred? Does this image not contradict (or reinforce) a previous one? The tempo of the work precludes mature reflection or comprehension, limiting retention and absorption as well. We are in the never-never land of soundbites and practically subliminal visuals.

The filmmaker has learned his New York University film school lessons well. Of the two main influences at work, one is that of Eisenstein, with his insistence on films constructed as a series of shocks to which the spectator must be relentlessly subjected. As per his prescription, the editing in JFK (by Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia) is precise and fully calculated to make the smallest cut fulfill a particular dialectic function. Eisenstein’s insistence on the primary importance of conflict within and between frames (conflicts of graphic direction and composition, of cam era position and movement, of light and shadow, of large and small masses), his insistence on conflict and contradiction as the basis of all the arts, can be discerned clearly in Stone’s visual and aural onslaughts. It would be difficult indeed to fall asleep during JFK. In fact, the complexity of Stone’s filmic structures, the conflicts and oppositions generated visually and aurally, are far in advance of those in Potemkin. And yet there are profound differences between Eisenstein’s methods and Stone’s; these are related but not limited to the second and surprising influence at work in Stone’s film: MTV.

The hyperbolic, compulsive, almost hysterical staccato structure of JFK comes directly out of MTV, where there is no distinct break between programs and commercials, between announcements, logos, and station breaks. They “flow” into, yet simultaneously “collide” with each other in cataclysmic, staccato encounters from morning to night, endlessly. Having created an audio-visual style light years ahead of the hidebound and ossified networks, MTV offers a hypnotic, hedonistic, mindless, joyful, all-devouring, alternate universe seemingly out of synch with that of the other television stations — except that they, in turn, have begun to imitate and co-opt this style, particularly in commercials and station breaks.

The structure and style of JFK resemble nothing more closely than MTV. Stone has embraced it with a vengeance — quite possibly without being aware of it. It is revealing that in his interviews and speeches, he repeatedly and pointedly has referred to “the MTV generation of fifteen million people who can swing the vote in the elections.”

Stone could claim that, whatever its form, the content of JFK is completely at odds with MTV’s (music videos, beer commercials, band news). Consciously, at least, there is no doubt that Stone is critical of advertising, consumerism, and mass culture. But JFK poses the question whether he does not in reality ape the culture he criticizes.

The “purpose” of MTV’s content is to sell CDs, music videos, and other products to a demographic group that is young, upwardly mobile, and strenuously determined to be “current.” Statements made on be- half of products are claims and assertions dressed up to appear as facts; they provide limited information but a great deal of jazzy visual fantasies, interspersed with documentary shots as well as docu-drama re creations. Since the information is partial, propagandistic, or shoddy, it is presented at such speed and with so much audio-visual “noise” and pizazz as to preclude rational consideration. The constant “premature withdrawal” of individual images is one of the basic aesthetic laws of MTV’s music videos, where the repeated but too brief appearance of the star leads to a “hunger” fulfillable, by proxy, only through purchase of the recording.

In this basic respect, MTV merely brings up to date techniques of advertising utilized since its beginnings. In this sense one can properly refer to advertising in general and the MTV style in particular as “propaganda.” In this same sense the term propaganda must surely be applied to JFK.

Because of its tempo and structure, Stone’s film does not allow the spectator to say, “I disagree,” “Go over this again,” or “I don’t under stand.” Since we cannot think or retain images as fast as Stone hurls his arguments and “facts” at us, the overall effect is authoritarian, fundamentally different from Eisenstein’s films, which allow for introspection, contemplation, and rational persuasion.

Though Nixon once said that pictures don’t lie, we are sophisticated enough to know that he — once again — was wrong. In JFK this same sophistication unfortunately permits us to detect yet another dangerous, time-honored device of film propaganda, the manipulation of documentary materials by various means: cutting; creating faked scenes within them without the audience’s being aware of it; using special techniques to expand or contract such footage; with or without the help of video or computers, dropping or adding people, objects, or other visual elements to a shot. (Zelig was an example of this last technique, as was a recent TV commercial in which Humphrey Bogart endorsed a contemporary product in a present-day setting.) All this is done so seamlessly and master fully that only repeated viewings reveal the number of such “liberties.”

Unfortunately, every one of these devices can be found in JFK. The Zapruder film has been tampered with — elongated, shortened, cut up. Though a silent 8mm color film, it miraculously becomes a 16mm film when Garrison projects it in the courtroom, and then, with an invented, enormously effective soundtrack, it turns into a 35mm film that alternates between black and white and color. We see the Joint Chiefs of Staff hold a conspiratorial meeting (with appropriate German Expressionist lighting) in which they discuss their hostility to Kennedy and plans for a coup d’etat — an entirely fabricated sequence. Stone, of course, is fully aware how powerful well-directed and -photographed simulations are, even when they are unaccompanied by a shred of real evidence.

Propaganda theory (see Mein Kampf) suggests that a large number of assertions (whether true or false) ultimately tend to be more convincing, because of their weight, than a single one. This is precisely what takes place in JFK.

Given the size, quality, and plasticity of cinematic images — especially in the hands of a master — when a “possibility” is shown as a “reality,” it becomes a “fact”; the only trouble here is that the entire scene was staged. For instance:

Life’s famous Oswald cover now features the actor who impersonates him — and a statement by this cinematic Oswald (supposedly shot during his interrogation by the Dallas police) that the Life photograph was a fake. Simultaneously, Stone, though he shows us this interrogation a number of times, has Garrison correctly state that no pictorial, audio, or written record of this event exists.

• Stills of Kennedy’s mutilated head are interspersed with re-created shots of his face and torso during his staged autopsy. In this scene shadowy government agents and uniformed high brass, in menacing fashion, advise the doctors (lower-rank Navy personnel chosen, says Garrison, by the military and accustomed to obeying their superiors) what or what not to look for or conclude.

• In highly dramatic and rapid-fire scenes, we are shown, in detail, the preparation and execution of Kennedy’s assassination by three separate teams of assassins, a total of ten to twelve men (!) operating in three separate locations. This “theory” of Kennedy’s assassination, when acted out in the cinema in this manner, becomes, for the mesmerized audience, a fact.

• At the very beginning of the film, we “see,” very briefly, a woman thrown from a car; a few shots later, she is in a hospital bed, in great pain, begging, beyond herself, that “they” be stopped, as “they” are about to kill the president. Who is this woman? Why is she not identified? Were her statements investigated? We are left with tremendously persuasive images for which no corroboration is presented and which, in fact, were staged.

A considerable recent controversy regarding a TV program — in which a key scene re-created the passing of an incriminating brief case from a Western to an Eastern spy — revolved around the station’s not having labeled this shot a “simulation”; this was viewed as a deliberate deception. Despite his many staged scenes (all of which aspire to the status of real events) Stone cannot be expected to “label” them, as he correctly assumes that this would drastically affect their “verisimilitude” and therefore their dramatic impact. But given this artistic license, are we any less deceived? And what are the con sequences of regarding “unlabelled” simulated scenes as a dramatically permissible, morally acceptable technique? Another time, might it not be used to up-date the Nazi propaganda film, The Eternal Jew?

More tangential but no less symptomatic is Stone’s surprising — and unacknowledged — homophobia. Some of the most important conspirators are portrayed as unsavory, unpleasant, deceitful gays — customary stereotypes favored by conventional, “macho” males with their own problems.

Stone’s most fateful gamble by far resides in his daring and reckless decision to present the film not as one person’s subjective (however well- researched) views, but as “the” truth about Kennedy’s assassination. This decision – an extravagant “dare” – totally permeates the structure and content of the work.

This is why even an on-screen introduction or postcript stating that this film represented one (informed) person’s view and encouraging the audience to read and study the matter further would be insufficient to transform it into a political rather than a propagandistic film. The work would have to be totally recast to bring about such a transformation. As it is, we are left with the replacement of one myth (the Warren Commission’s findings) by another (Stone’s film). In some recent inter views Stone referred to his film as “a hypothesis, part fact, part speculation.” Unfortunately, no such statement can be found anywhere in the film itself.

Anyone familiar with the various books and related materials on the Kennedy assassination will concede that a number of facts adduced by Stone indeed are true. By the same token, a larger number of events or connections Stone projects as “facts” are, according to accepted standards of empirically arrived at truth, mere assertions, not yet proven.

And yet these unproved assertions are precisely what Stone presents as “the truth” to a generation ignorant of the events. Given the power of cinema in the hands of a master who is backed by the industry’s resources, this is the version of history that is likely to be accepted by this generation instead of the view presented by more thoughtful books. One must sorrowfully conclude that Stone serves historical truth poorly by presenting a dubious, eminently attackable version of it in the form of a razzle-dazzle action film. The investigation and determination of historical veracity ultimately includes Stone as well as the Warren Commission.

And here we arrive at profound questions concerning the efficacy of political cinema as such; for, had he chosen to present, in the form of a Hollywood feature, a reasoned, balanced, nonpropagandistic film, it would certainly have been less dramatic, less involving—ironically, less convincing. The result would have been an infinitely smaller audience.

Is it possible that the commercial cinema, with its demands for entertainment, excitement, and appeals to the lowest common denominator, simply does not lend itself to the presentation of serious political (not propagandistic) cinema? Or is it perhaps the evanescent, illusory, emotion laden nature of the medium itself that precludes rational thought and critical reflection? Can the process of factual verification and balanced presentation without manipulation be carried out in a visual medium that appears primarily directed towards visceral response ? Are we back to asking ourselves whether Brecht’s alienation effect can be achieved in the cinema? We can all immediately think of a dozen outstanding political films that have succeeded; but almost none of these, I believe, could have commanded a mass audience.

Eisenstein’s films ultimately served, even if unintentionally, the Stalinist ruling class. Vertov willingly made films for it, as did Dovzhenko. So did Frank Capra during the Second World War create government propaganda films; with stirring music, clever montage, and seriously one-sided narration, he offered very slanted views of contemporary history. So did Leni Riefenstahl and Fritz Hippler in The Eternal Jew. Neither this latter film nor The Triumph of the Will lent themselves to audience reflection and critical thought; they were meant to overpower the spectator, to open him to persuasion without offering valid evidence, to present allegations as facts, to omit important pieces of information, to create amalgams of otherwise unconnected data, to appeal to gut emotions instead of the brain. In what significant way do Oliver Stone’s techniques in JFK differ from these films? Would not Hippler and Riefenstahl have been delighted to use them for their own propagandistic purposes?

It may be argued that despite the severe caveats concerning the film outlined here, it nevertheless serves a politically progressive function by making a new generation more leery of a government and state structure that indeed deserves our suspicion. This would be true if a better, more truly democratic society could be constructed on the basis of propaganda. Justice and wisdom, however, cannot be achieved on a diet of half-truths and in the absence of reasoned thought. Without truth and reason, we would simply be laying the groundwork for the demagogues of the future. Such melancholy thoughts are evoked by a film that “merely as a film” (an impossible limitation) would undoubtedly have to be hailed as an enduring masterpiece of film art simply because of the brilliance of the filmmaking, the camerawork, the editing, the soundtrack, and particularly the breathtaking manipulation of images in all their intricacy and artistry.

Nothing is as difficult as turning one’s eyes from the screen to the audience during such a hypnotic film as JFK. But when we do look at the audience — at its total absorption, its rapt silence, its awed submission to the electrifying images and sound — we see profound evidence of the power and the danger of the cinema.

(PDF of this article here)

Antioch Review, Summer 1992

© Amos Vogel/Antioch Review
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