'JFK' presents a different reality

Oliver Stone

March 26, 1992|By Oliver Stone

MOST of the critics of my film "JFK" have been from the print media, the domain of the typographical mind. Before the advent of the image media, they were the sole owners of history, the chief custodians of reality. Behind these various criticisms of "JFK" seems to stand a profound suspicion of the image media itself, especially of the rapid-splice editing common to MTV rock videos, which I used in "JFK."

Doesn't the MTV technique, they ask, constitute a kind of cerebral bypass in which surface appearances are transported directly into the the subconscious realm of myths and symbols? What about that critical pause for reflection which distinguishes our civilized condition from that of the primitive state of the pure unreflective subconscious? What about the reasoning mind which allows us to distinguish fact from fiction, truth from falsity?

To start with, the killing of John F. Kennedy was a primitive act. The president's head was blown off at high-noon in Dealy Plaza.

I want you, the viewer, to be in the skin of the event, inside the surface. I want you to be subjective in your reaction. I want you to feel the sorrow, pity, pain, fear and horror.

So I went at it with every tool I had. Sixteen- and eight-millimeter cameras. I blew up frames. I used black and white. I used color. The camera zooms in. It zooms out.

"JFK" is one of the fastest movies. It is like splinters to the brain. We had 2,500 cuts, maybe 2,200 camera setups. We were assaulting the senses in a kind of new wave technique. We wanted to get to the subconscious.

The idea of the film was not so much to solve the mystery of who killed the president. The idea was to present an overarching paradigm of all the possibilities of the assassination. I would tap one perspective, then another and another. I was digging up evidence from all different places, buried like Schliemann's Trojan walls in several different layers. As a film, "JFK" can be seen as an archaeological investigation, a deconstruction, of one of the central events of American life.

"JFK" is really akin to the Japanese film "Rashomon," Akira Kurosawa's fable about the impossibility of ever arriving at a single truth.

In my film, the camera reflected the search for truth. Its various angles captured the simultaneous points of view of an array of witnesses and their own fragments of apprehension. The camera itself was the critical instrument. It should be self-reflexive.

Take the case of Lee Bowers, the obscure railroad watchman whose testimony is buried amid the thick layers of Warren Commission witnesses. On paper, his testimony is boring as hell. On paper it is hard to imagine its significance.

In the film, we start with a cut of Bower in his railroad watchtower behind Dealy Plaza, then cut to him talking as he gives his testimony at the Warren Commission hearing, then we flash back to the moment in the watchtower -- a flashback in a flashback -- when he notices three cars that drove up and left mysteriously, when he notices those weird people at the fence overlooking the assassination sight.

The camera here is subjective. It gives us Bowers' point of view -- looking out of the watchtower, seeing the gunmen, the fence, the leaving cars. He was not paying full attention. He was doing something else when he heard the shots. He noticed a faint puff of smoke. It could be someone firing from the fence.

The camera did not have a dead-on closeup of a man firing. It jerked. The image was blurred. "Did I hear it or did I see it?" Bowers asked in his testimony. He wasn't sure. "It just seemed like something funny at the fence."

The images flash on film with Bowers' voiceover. On paper you can read these words slowly, go back over them, study them. In film, it goes so fast -- as Bowers actually saw it. The moment is gone before you can really even weigh it. Can you be sure of what you saw? Was he? Is it fact?

The same was true of other witnesses on the overpass and the grassy knoll. "I saw smoke over there by the fence," one said. Jean Hill, a witness on the knoll, said she thought she saw somebody firing from the fence. So in "JFK" you will see the briefest, three-frame subliminal scene of a man firing at the fence. She thinks she saw it, but can't be sure.

In short, what you see represented over and over again in the film are fragments of consciousness that, altogether, add up to the reality of a moment. They are shards of an event about which the whole truth is perhaps unknowable. "JFK" is a three-hour avalanche of fragments of the truth.

Ultimately, "JFK" is not really a political film. The ultimate questions are philosophical ones: Who owns reality? Who owns your mind? Isn't history a distorted hall of mirrors that depends on the kind of surface reflecting its essence and its events?

Unlike many of my critics, I don't think reality belongs to the New York Times and the Washington Post.

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