History comes to your VCR Tape: Those few dreadful seconds in Dallas are seen more clearly on the enhanced Zapruder film headed for video stores near you.

July 16, 1998|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Where were you when you saw the video?

For the first time, the public can own (or rent) a copy of Abraham Zapruder's 26-second home movie of the assassination of President Kennedy. Packaged as a documentary, the digitally enhanced, rephotographed video, "Image of an Assassination: A New Look at the Zapruder Film," went on sale this week for $16.99 at video outlets.

Besides a lengthy behind-the-scenes look at the restoration, the documentary ends with a flurry of new versions of the famous sequence -- including slow-motion and zoom versions, where technology keeps President Kennedy front and center in each frame. Even the rectangles of blank film caused by the sprockets of Zapruder's camera have been restored to reveal, if nothing else, additional scenery.

In the video versions, your eyes are drawn more to Kennedy as the presidential motorcade turns into Dealey Plaza. You see Kennedy waving to the crowd before Zapruder's view is momentarily obstructed by a road sign. We immediately see, up close and in slow motion, Kennedy's arms rising and straightening at his neck.

In clear color (Zapruder's jittery camera work having been digitally stabilized), we see the shot that struck Kennedy's head. The explosion of red. Jacqueline Kennedy, in her pink pillbox hat, facing her downed husband. We see her expression more clearly.

"I'm sick about it," Zapruder said in a TV interview in Dallas that November day 35 years ago. Along with the 500-plus frames of the assassination, the 45-minute documentary includes footage, such as that TV interview, about the Russian-born Zapruder -- "the unassuming man with an ordinary camera who unwittingly captured a seminal moment in American history," says the narration.

The documentary details how the video was first developed and shown at a Kodak processing plant in Dallas and how a Life magazine editor called Zapruder's home every 15 minutes for five hours until Zapruder, a Dallas dressmaker, picked up the phone. The magazine's perseverance and deep pockets paid off: Zapruder sold Time, Inc. the print and film rights for $150,000. But it was hardly a tidy end to the story of the famous film.

Now comes Illinois-based MPI Home Video, which has shipped out 30,000 copies (including one to President Clinton) and hopes to sell 200,000 copies eventually. MPI -- distributors of the "Lost Honeymooners" episodes and "A Hard Day's Night" -- now has the worldwide rights to the Zapruder video.

"It's a different venue than the Beatles -- there seems to be no limit to this story," says Natalie Olinger, speaking for MPI Home Video.

Baltimore-area Blockbuster stores have fielded a few calls about "the JFK thing," as one clerk called the video. Despite its national release Tuesday, the video has been scarce here, with several outlets still awaiting delivery. There's been little rush for orders -- after all, the documentary is competing against shelves of "Good Will Hunting" and "As Good As It Gets."

On the Internet, reaction was swift: "I do not want to see it. I know how it ends" ... "more likely that will be on cable" ... "I have no desire to watch JFK's head being blown off or to see poor Jackie's pain."

The documentary could well develop a cult following. Although we do know how the film ends, some people aren't convinced how the president died. The images continue to feed the prevailing conspiracy theory that Lee Harvey Oswald was not the sole gunman. Kennedy, some theorists have maintained, could not have been shot from behind, specifically, from Oswald's sniper post on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository.

For this reason, the home video will also be coveted as evidence, says a leading author on the subject.

"The film shows clearly that when the bullet hits the president, he is driven backward and to the left. How could that have been accomplished from a bullet coming from behind?" asks Washington attorney Mark Lane, who has challenged the government's position that Oswald acted alone. Lane's 1966 book on the subject, "Rush to Judgment," was made into a movie, then a video distributed by MPI Home Video.

"We make no judgments as to what happened to President Kennedy," Olinger says. "We're not part of history, but maybe we can contribute to some final conclusions to close this."

Conclusions aren't likely. But, now packaged and produced, the moving pictures of Kennedy's death are likely to exhume the ache and pain of the tragedy. It's graphic. It's not for children, Olinger strongly suggests: "Maybe some high-schoolers could handle it."

The 8-mm film has been a story in itself. Long before Zapruder's film would be made available for home viewing, Lane, now 71, took the film on the road. He was at the film's first public showing in 1969 during New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison's unsuccessful prosecution of businessman Clay Shaw. Believing the film "belonged to the American people," Lane says he made 100 copies and showed it across the country during speeches and media appearances.

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