Duped (The Zapruder Film as Art Object)
In addition to being a Rocket Scientist and Contributing Editor to Art Issues, I am also an accomplished experimental Super-8 film auteur. The most recent film I've been working on is REDURPAZ, a frame by frame S-8 reshooting of the famed 26-second clip of the JFK assassination, reversed. My intentions are wholly honorable: a structural inversion to induce an awakening from the nightmare of history, no less. If at the same time, certain issues of intellectual property liberation were recast in the flickering light of this particular strip of celluloid's notorious subterranean half-life of grainy bootlegs - reconstituted from the Warren Commission’s Volume 18 or dubbed 10 generations from Jim Garrison's landmark subpoenaed copy, so be it. My work could bear many interpretations and criticisms - it's a work of Art. Imagine my consternation to learn that I was not only being presumptuous in my attitude towards this cinematic fragment, but to the tune of more coin than I'll probably see in my entire life.
On Aug 4, an arbitration committee appointed by the Assassination Records Review Board was ordered to pay the heirs of Abraham Zapruder $16 million for the late furniture manufacturer's 494-frame sequence of 8mm film showing the assassination of JFK. The constitutionally mandated 'just compensation' for government seizure of private property 'for the public good', the binding decision ended several years of deliberation, during which the film was valued variously by the US Government and the Zapruder family from $1 to $40,000,000, though both parties agreed to cap the negotiable amount at 30 million. What is remarkable, apart from the record-breaking settlement (which, profit-wise, blows the Blair Witch Project out of the woods with Zapruder's initial budget at approximately 8¢), are the arguments used by the family lawyers and their implications for the legal and popular understanding of what constitutes art.
Shot on the spur of the moment using a brand new Bell & Howell 8mm camera, the brief, shaky burnt-out bit of footage changed Abraham Zapruder’s life forever. He was never again able to look through a movie camera lens nor read or watch a news program about JFK. Zapruder sold the original film to LIFE magazine the day after for $150,000, leaving the official police investigations with only copies. The Luce corporation decided to keep the images unavailable (except for its own uses) for the next 12 years. In 1975, Geraldo Rivera broadcast a clear copy of the film on Network television. The response was seismic, and within a month TIME/LIFE had sold the film back to Zapruder's widow for one dollar. Over the next few decades, the Z family sought a number of ways to balance their reluctance to expose the grisly document with their own pecuniary interests and the demands of the vast and variegated body of conspiracy and anti-conspiracy pundits. Last year the family finally made the Zapruder film, along with an abundance of peripheral documentary material available as Image of an Assassination a VHS/DVD release from MPI Home Video of Orland Park, Ill. Much of the prosecution's argument focussed on the film's potential earning power as a copywritten property, summarizing the profits from the last 35 years as "probably no greater than $993,637, or an average of $28,594 a year." Assuming that the rental rate stays steady and in light of the fact that each frame of the film was purchased by the US Government for $32, 388.66, the Zapruders have managed to more than double the revenue from their unique documentation of this unique event, at least for the next 500 years or so.
The Zapruder lawyers argued that the film was a work of art equivalent to Van Gogh's Sunflowers (whose 1987 $40M price tag set the Zapruder's outside figure), Andy Warhol's Orange Marilyn or the Da Vinci Codex Leicester. To this end, they enlisted a phalanx of professional art appraisers, including Sylvia Leonard Wolf, Jerry Patterson, Beth Gates Warren, and audiovisual materials appraiser to the Bush Library and Smithsonian Steve Johnson, who stated in his affidavit "The ever-familiar hues of the tragedy – the pink of the First Lady's outfit, the red of the wounds, the green of the grass, the bluish-black of the Presidential limousine – would not have been better if selected by Warhol or Matisse." In a later affidavit, Johnson compared frame 182 of the film to "The Steerage," a 1907 photograph by Alfred Stieglitz. "To the modern viewer, even this single image from the Zapruder Film has far more dramatic emotive power than `The Steerage.'" Ms. Wolf meanwhile maintains the film's individual frames to be "pleasing to the eye," their colors "rich and vibrant." It was also Ms. Wolf’s conceit to identify the artistic equivalency between the Z-film and Andy Warhol's "Orange Marilyn," which sold at Sotheby's last year for $17.3 million, on the basis of Ms. Monroe's alleged affair with JFK, as well as "the additional (shared) element of fascination with violence and tragedy."
There is also extraordinary fact that the purchase is for the length of celluloid itself, exclusive of the copyright. This means that the actual footage may not be reproduced or even projected, without authorization from, and payment to the Zapruder family. Its value has been determined simply as an object, artifact, or relic, a repository of supernatural meaning entirely apart from copies of the film, purchasable for home viewing on a $20 DVD. This asymmetric evaluation is indicative of our culture’s still-deeply imbedded prejudice in favor of handled objects - things imbued by the artist's aura, retaining some phantom trace of the creative channels that opened to allow the art to occur, some morphogenic echoes of the circumstances of its realization - in this case, encoding perhaps some unimaginable rationalization of the perpetually indigestible patricide. Yet, if we address these particular circumstances by the process of elimination - consider, for instance, if Mr. Zapruder had taken a movie of his wife on the front lawn, or of Richard Nixon visiting Dallas, or even of JFK at some other point in his visit - it is clear that the execution itself is what qualifies this film in the eyes of the United States government to be, not only a work of art, but one of the greatest artworks of the 20th century.
The logical extension of this is to look at the assassination itself as a work of art, whether the act of a lone crazed artist or a collaboration so diffuse and driven by the unconscious collective as to be authorless in any conventional sense: a violent half-improvised half- choreographed mythological street pageant, splatter painting translated into an arena of action by a terminal literalist, Chris Burden's Shoot retroactively extended beyond the limits of the art laboratory. Such an idea is superficially repugnant and absurd, but has been implicit in the event's reception from the first reports, most notably by science fiction writers. Barry Malzberg's 1969 novel Destruction of the Temple posits a future society dedicated to a repetition compulsion pageant reenactment of the assassination: an entire, functional and integrated culture based on the aesthetic determinates of Dealy Plaza, but with the original historical roots of their iconography lost in time. J.G. Ballard's short story 'The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race', originally published in the experimental magazine Ambit #29 in 1966 was the template for the aesthetics of clinical scrutiny that would reach its apotheosis with his spectacular series of early 70's novels - The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, and High-rise. Four of Ballard's main obsessions - the automobile, sex, violence, and voyeuristic cinematic surveillance are so perfectly melded in the Zapruder film that one suspects it may have played a central role in the definition of his vision, and his frequent continual references to Oswald, the Assassination, and the film itself (referring to the Warren Commission Report as ‘the novelization of the Zapruder film’) over the years bear this out.
Certainly the actual assassination, executed with the economy and elegance of seasoned professionals who know the parameters of their technology (exponentially more so as one approaches it from serially expansive conspiracy models), is more plausibly an artwork than the neophyte film-maker’s explicitly documentary work. Nevertheless, while the argument can obviously be made, and a consensus reached, there is a telling conventionality to the expert opinions proffered. Several of the most obvious strategies the Zapruder family lawyers and experts either overlooked or chose not to raise (or if they did, it didn't make the news wires). One is the controversial precedent set by the inclusion of the George Holliday’s Rodney King beating video as a work of art in the 1993 Whitney Biennial, a gesture that, while intended to read as courageous, reeked of abjection of the Fine arts before the cultural power of the broadcast media, and was so, contradictorily, one of the more successful curatorial whims of the season.
More persuasive is the artistic centrality of this bit of celluloid to one of the most controversial artworks of the decade - Oliver Stone's 1991 film JFK, which used the actual Zapruder footage extensively, relying on its shock value, documentary verity, and the patently hypnotic theatrical repetition 'backwards and to the right...backwards and to the right' as a play within the play, a nugget of incontrovertible heretical fact opening into a maelstrom of mediated postmodern indeterminacy. In the even nuttier media tempest flailing about the movie's release, Stone himself repeatedly referred to 'Hamlet' as his model for the movie, casting America as the usurped heir apparent. Shakespeare's play-within-a-play is typical of the Bard's complex self-reflexive game-playing sentience, and is, for all intents, the template of what was to become a central post-modern strategy: the framing of a meta-narrative so as to cast a frame around the narrative that 'contains' it. But where, in Hamlet, the protagonist alters the content of the smaller protean narrative to force a corroboration of Truth in his rigid moral universe, in JFK the Zapruder film - a more 'real' representation of reality than the containing narrative - is used, unaltered, as the only touchstone in an infinitely malleable, post-historical, morally ambiguous universe.
For better or worse, Stone's JFK remains one of the major works to have fueled the last decade’s arguments over who determines reality versus what constitutes art (alongside John Oswald's PLUNDERPHONICS, the Milli Vanilli story, and the work of Elizabeth Peyton), with the Zapruder film as the 'looking glass’ portal between the normative and the totally fucked up. Curiously, this is much the same role it plays in the Assassination Records Review Board's adjudications, it's flip-flop significance ultimately insoluble, but pointing to a basic flaw in our ontology of art. For while the bundle of phenomena that make up the Zapruder film's significance - the imagery itself, its historical moment, its mythic import, its central generative role in the aesthetics of paranoia, its pop cultural cache, and not least its highly debatable aesthetic merits as a work of photography or cinema, lie exclusively in the content, that is to say the copyright, which is specifically excluded from the evaluation of its artistic merit, except as a ragged poor cousin to Art trotted out to emphasize what Art is not. Rather than seeing these qualities as exclusive from the specific 'length of celluloid on a plastic spool' as the prosecution reasonably argued, they become somehow embodied therein so much more substantially as to be over 2000% more valuable. While greed would seem to be the family's motivation, the arbitration panel's endorsement is indicative of a deep fear of the alternative: the possibility that the ideal copy, the digital clone, the replicant, the doppelganger is, in any measurable sense, at least as precious as the original. When ALL the Van Goghs turn out to be fakes, and your household nano-colony recreates a fresco of The Last Supper, molecularly indistinguishable from the original, on your bedroom wall, we’re past due some new, less hierarchical categories.
As a pivotal icon at the disintegration of the Cultural Artifact's function as objective surrogate, representing a point of view we can either agree or disagree with, into that of the subjective fragmented disco ball reflection of simultaneously unrealized and mutually inclusive potentialities, the Z film is indeed an object of considerable artistic significance. Its gilded entombment as an autonomous formal object is a tribute to its power, equal in desperation to the furor surrounding Oliver Stone's shrewd lodging of it at the center of his post-historic mythology. "The Revolution will be aesthetic rather than economic" Ballard has said, and the profound confusion over what is and is not a work of art shows that the stakes are climbing, and those at the top of culture have less and less of a clue what art might be, where art is actually taking place and who is perpetrating it. This should be welcome news to artists, who know that art can only be gotten away with outside the range of the security cameras. And personally I see no reason not to finish REDURPAZ.