You Must Remember This
On the very day that John F. Kennedy was shot, the great American experimental filmmaker Bruce Conner started filming the images of the assassination off his television set onto super 8. Four years later, after obsessive reworking and re-editing of the found footage – most of Conner's films are collages of pre-existing images and sounds – he completed a thirteen-minute film called Report (1967).
It is as if Conner intuited, from the very moment that the Kennedy assassination first appeared on television, that henceforth our entire relation to that event would be through recorded images and sounds, through the mass media – and that our obsession with making sense of the event would work itself out through an endless replay of the footage. Conner, in the extremeness of his art, gives future generations of media junkies only two options: either they will be taunted forever by the lack of anything to really, truthfully see in the immortal footage; or they will see too much, and fall into an endless, hallucinatory spin – imagining one story, one conspiracy after another.
Oliver Stone is a mainstream filmmaker who, in several respects, is not all that different from Conner. As someone obsessed with the 1960s – with the spirit and the significance of that decade as he remembers it – Stone provided perhaps the clearest indication of the underlying phantasm which drives his films in a strange scene at the start of The Doors (1991).
It is a somewhat gratuitous vignette recording Jim Morrison's early days at UCLA film school, with Stone himself as a bearded professor inviting comments on the legend-to-be's avant-garde extravaganza: a wild collage of sound grabs, superimpositions and multiple screens, achieving in a few hysterical seconds a rough and ready synthesis of the French Nouvelle Vague, Warhol's movies and Marshall McLuhan's theories of the media. The assembly hisses, the professor glowers, and Jim gives up cinema for psychedelic rock.
But the rest of Stone's own film, in all its demented virtuosity, is virtually a continuation of the one Morrison dropped – and a re-invocation for the '90s of the same dream that Morrison pursued in the '60s, the dream of a mass medium so powerful, so intoxicating, that it would help people to "break on through to the other side".
Of all the big directors working today, Stone is the one who most quickly makes irrelevant any argument as to whether his films are ultimately good or bad. Is he a master of the medium or a mere showman, are his films dazzlingly well-constructed or just overblown messes? None of these aesthetic judgments matter in the slightest: Stone is a cultural phenomenon, and he has achieved that status precisely because his films capture so directly, and embody so completely, one of the central sensibilities of our time.
Stone is – as the Situationist philosophers of the '60s might have said – a child of the spectacle. He lives for, and through, the images and sounds that come to him via the mass media. His films give the urgent, impassioned sense that every critical moment in private life, in world history, in public affairs has left its trace somewhere in a vast archive of pre-recorded images and sounds – and that all we need do to resolve any social malaise that emerges is to re-edit and re-energise that archive.
One imagines that Stone would love the last part of Report, taking its ultimate, cynical, indifferent montage of a thousand, disconnected fragments as an expression of jubilant, strenuous optimism. For Stone draws virtually no distinction between documentary and fictional footage – something which causes a lot of dismay among his commentators. All traces in the archive function as raw material for an emotive, propagandistic ceremony, as Stone evokes, restages and appropriates the classic media moments that are imprinted in our brains. And this has never been more the case than in Stone's own audio-visual reflection on the Kennedy assassination, JFK.
Stone is the true poet of what Scott McQuire has called our contemporary techno-memory: the store of images and sounds that come to define, even eventually stand in for, historical reality – the technological, pre-recorded souvenirs that we come to trust and internalise as if they were personally experienced memories. At the beginning of the '90s, techno-memory began to dominate television completely, as the audio-visual archive became, via computer storage and editing, instantly available and endlessly recombinable.
The history of the Jacksons, for instance – as encapsulated variously in the film Moonwalker (1988), the mini-series The Jacksons: An American Dream (1992), or Oprah Winfrey's interview special with Michael Jackson – becomes a dazzling, cascading kaleidoscope of old black and white concert clips, slick music videos, record covers, dolls, cartoon figures, and an iconic single white glove: an existence which is a pure calculus of media representations.
The credit sequence for The Wonder Years – updated every few series – works on the same principle, with its nostalgic appeal to common historical experience via a soft avalanche of glimpses of the first moon landing, Woodstock, campus riots ... images that whisper to one and all: you must remember this, remember it like this. Stone's particular genius is to have translated this very televisual form of techno-memory into the widescreen grandeur of cinema. Bob Ellis ecstatically vibes along with the slightly sinister effects of this mass-mediated memory when he eulogizes JFK for its "montage that out of the blown scraps of history weaves and reweaves, forms and reforms the human memory itself".
JFK is a very unusual film within its genre – the political conspiracy genre. Thrillers in this tradition, from The Manchurian Candidate (1962) to Winter Kills (1979) and Ground Zero (1987), work from a simple premise: that every appearance is duplicitous, that behind every true story lies another fabrication. Typically, the plots of these films trace a veritable vertigo of revelation and counter-revelation, suspicion and betrayal. The heroes – like Warren Beatty in The Parallax View (1974) or James Woods in Videodrome (1983) – always find out, far too, late, that they are the central pawns in a sinister game. The Mr Big who is behind the conspiracy often remains unmasked at the end of the tale, while the hero spins out into psychosis or death, unable to contain the complexity of the conspiracy in his single, tiny mind.
Many have labelled JFK a paranoid movie, alluding to what Richard Hofstadter critically labelled in the 1950s as the "paranoid style in American politics". By style he meant a guiding sensibility which is panicked, obsessive, ungrounded, terminally suspicious, wildly projecting leads, clues and plots out of the tiniest detail – and ultimately anxious to uncover, according to political persuasion, Reds under the beds or CIA operatives. There is without doubt a hallucinatory ambience to JFK – as with many of Stone's films, even when the subject is not political conspiracy.
And what is certainly paranoid in the most damning sense about the movie is its completely freaked-out sexual politics, with Kevin Costner (as Jim Garrison) making Shakespearian speeches about slain fathers and aggrieved sons, while homewife Sissy Spacek refuses to understand his divine mission, and most of the key bad guys cavort in bizarre homosexual orgies. At least on this level, Stone displays a paranoid style which is defensively white, male, heterosexual, middle class and backward-looking.
But JFK is not really a paranoid conspiracy theory movie. There is a conspiracy at foot, but it is not bottomless; and Costner ends up neither a corpse nor a blithering, alienated idiot playing a saxophone in the ruins of his apartment, like Gene Hackman in The Conversation (1974). By the same token, however, it hardly fits the bill of an old-fashioned, muckraking, investigative exposé – a film that presumes to uncover the final truth about the political mysteries it encircles. The novelty of Stone's approach – and what makes him so much a filmmaker of the '90s – is that he refuses this posture of truth.
Like an involuntary poststructuralist, Stone, in all his public statements on the film, is at pains to say that we will never know the truth of the Kennedy assassination. Like all events, it is locked up in the unrecoverable past. There is no truth – only accounts, images, stories of what happened. Where a modern philosopher would say there are only representations, Stone says, in his grandiloquent way, that there are only Myths. The Warren Commission finding was one myth; Stone offers his JFK as a "counter myth". No truth, only a war of rhetorics, of persuasive tellings and re-tellings.
The chief reason why Stone's films are compelling, so emotionally persuasive to some viewers, is that the mythologised reality that he conjures is first and last a construction of techno-memory. This is what is truly hallucinatory about JFK – not the paranoia, but the hyperreal feel to every scene, shot, cut, gesture. Although it's easy to talk about it as if it were simply an elaborate, mammoth clippings file on a fascinating real life case, no example illustrates better Sylvia Lawson's contention that "it simply isn't possible to talk about a film without discussing the sounds and images it's made of". And in this case, the act of watching JFK is a bit like zapping between television channels, particularly during the extended, Conner-like montage which opens the film – except that Stone relentlessly pumps up every emotional hue and association in the images.
Stone loves to recreate, restage great archival moments from our techno-memory. Not just the Zapruder super 8 footage of the assassination (replayed endlessly, from every conceivable angle), but every public figure, every place or period, that has ever been photographed or recorded in some shape or form. There is a surreal quality to these recreations: techno-memory dictates that we will not only see the thing itself, but also, in an exaggerated form, the grain or texture with which it was first captured on film. Stone meticulously simulates every shake, flare, over– or underexposure, random piece of hair and grit that imprinted itself on the original footage – and adds some more himself, for hyper-effect.
Then, as in a contagion, this hysterical, fluxing mobility is used for scenes of a more obviously fictional nature – interrogations, arguments, domestic crises, dreams and revelations experienced by the visionary, investigative hero.
JFK deliberately plunges the viewer into a swirling, perceptual chaos where there is always too much to see or hear, and never enough time to take it in: just wind back to the start on video, and take note of how many details (such as Sally Kirkland's mysterious and bloody drama) never make it back to the body of the film. "In what T. S. Eliot called visions and revisions," sings Ellis, "we see Kennedy anew." Visions and revisions indeed: in the skittish, anxious play of the collective techno-memory, Stone is always proposing an image and then withdrawing it, taking it back for further post-production treatment, trying to make different sense of it within another grand montage.
There's creativity in all this tinkering, this minute, material myth-spinning; but there's also a silent, blank underlying terror, the groundless terror of the media age which Conner anticipated so acutely in his Report. So maybe we've hit the terrain of paranoia after all. But if so, it's not paranoia over the identity of murderers or conspirators, but the very contents of social memory – and an anxiety that there may not be anything solid to remember at all.
© Adrian Martin June 1993