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“Where were you?”: The JFK Assassination In Culture Part 1

November 18, 2013

Mad Men’s “The Grown Ups”: Staffers, including from left, Paul (Michael Gladis), Ken (Aaron Staton), Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) and Harry (Rich Sommer) react to the news of Kennedy’s assassination.

PaulaWhere were you when Kennedy got shot?

HarryWhich Kennedy?

PaulaAny Kennedy.

HarryWhen the president got shot, I was on my way to San Diego. Football game. When Bobby got shot, I was sitting in a car waiting for a guy to come out of a house with his girlfriend. Working on a divorce case. One of those times I wish I was in another business. Why do you ask?

PaulaIt’s one of those questions everybody knows the answer to.

Night Moves, written by Alan Sharp.

In a recent post on Entertainment Weekly‘s web page entitled “Remembering 11/22/63…or Not; Why It’s Time for Pop Culture to Stop Killing Kennedy” (located on its “Inside TV” page), senior TV writer Jeff Jensen opens by saying while he wasn’t alive when Kennedy was assassinated, it seems like he experienced it all the same. The tone of the post, unfortunately, falls into the same self-satisfied tone that seems to pass all too often for insight these days. It’s doubly unfortunate because, in spite of tone, Jensen does raise a couple of valid points. The first is, whether intentionally or not, memorials of the assassination, in real life or in pop culture, do tend to reinforce the Baby Boomer generation’s belief they were the only one that mattered* (though Jensen undercuts that point by not acknowledging the possibility 9/11 memorials in the future might be the same way. Also, depending on who you think killed Kennedy, he seems to think Oswald did it alone and all conspiracy theorists are deluded). The second is the trap these depictions of reactions to the assassination fall into is they risk solipsism or self-indulgence instead of genuine emotion.

Take, for example, Richard Benjamin’s Mermaids, from 1990 (adapted by June Roberts from the novel by Patty Dann). The movie is set in a small town in Massachusetts in 1963, and is a coming-of-age story about Charlotte (Winona Ryder), a teenager who rebels against her unconventional mother (Cher) – she makes finger foods for meals, the family doesn’t sit at the table, and she is constantly getting involved with men and then moving Charlotte and her sister Kate (Christina Ricci) when the relationship no longer works out – by being obsessed with being a nun (“Charlotte, we’re Jewish”), even though she also becomes attracted to Joe (Michael Schoeffling), the handyman/bus driver who works at the local convent. About 40 minutes into the movie, Charlotte is in class watching a documentary when a teacher comes in crying, and telling Charlotte’s teacher the news. Immediately, the film gets turned off, a radio gets turned on, and in a tracking shot, as the first teacher pulls up the blinds, the camera tracks, showing the students’ stunned reactions until it settles on Charlotte. Right after this, we see Charlotte walking the streets of town, seeing people either walking around in stunned silence, or gathered around a store window where there’s a TV (which is where she sees the famous footage of Walter Cronkite choking up before announcing Kennedy was dead). In a voice-over (she narrates the movie), Charlotte mentions how she misses her father, and how it doesn’t feel like there are any adults in the world. All fair enough, and the scenes of people reacting feel true to life.** But then Charlotte goes over to the convent (a nun walks by crying) and the bell tower, where Joe is; he’s obviously broken up as well, and Charlotte hugs him, which eventually leads to them kissing, until Charlotte realizes where she is and freaks, running away. Now, this may have been in the novel (which I’ve not read), but the scene feels strange, especially since Benjamin overdoes the comedy of Charlotte’s naivete about sex and how drawn to yet afraid of religious symbols she is. To be sure, while there’s much to like in the movie, this isn’t the only time there are jarring shifts in tone, but it seems especially wrong here.

The Mad Men episode “The Grown-Ups” that I cited in my introductory post also makes its characters’ reactions risk being self-centered, but at least the show recognizes this, and it’s consistent with the way we’ve seen these characters portrayed already. Along with the moments of genuine grief and shock (Don (Jon Hamm) comes into the main area to find all the phones are ringing because all the secretaries are huddled around the radio, and then, all of a sudden, they stop; also, when Carla (Deborah Lacey) brings the kids home right when its announced Kennedy is dead, and all Betty (January Jones) can do is nod in confirmation that he’s dead) are Margaret (Elizabeth Rice) sobbing at the news because her wedding is ruined (although, to be sure, there were plenty of people in real life in her shoes), Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) complaining he doesn’t want to go to the wedding because of how the people at the office reacted to the shooting (in the sixth season episode “The Flood”, which dealt with Martin Luther King’s assassination, we can see Pete wasn’t that far off, but we can also see this is his way of of manipulating his wife Trudy (Alison Brie) into not going), to Duck (Mark Moses) turning off the initial report of the shooting so he can have sex with Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), and Jane (Peyton List) sighing she’s never going to get to vote for Kennedy. Most of all, we see Don seeming determined to demonstrate that life goes on; the best comfort he can offer the kids, for example, is they’ll be getting a new President, and everybody will be sad for a bit. Peggy sums it all up at the end of the episode (it’s the day of the funeral, and she and Don – who’s been kicked out of the house by Betty for reasons important to the story but not to this post – are the only ones at the office) when she says she had to get out of the house because her mother was “crying and praying so hard there wasn’t room for anyone else to feel anything.”

Then there are those works that use the assassination as a springboard for another story. Ronald Neame’s The Odessa File, as well as the Frederick Forsyth novel it’s based on (adapted by George Markstein and Kenneth Ross), starts out with Peter Miller (Jon Voight), a German journalist, driving to his home in Hamburg when he hears the news on his radio (in Germany, it was 8:30 when Kennedy was pronounced dead). Miller’s immediate reaction is to pull over to the side of the road, as do other cars in front of and behind him (in the novel, Forsyth writes, “as if driving and listening to the radio had suddenly become mutually exclusive, which in a way they had”). It’s because he pulls over to the side of the road and listens to the radio for half an hour (interrupted by another driver who wants to talk) before pulling away that he sees the ambulance that kicks the plot into motion, and except for the following scene, the assassination is never mentioned again (at least in the movie; in the novel, there’s one more scene where ex-Nazis – as well as one deep cover agent – toast the good news`). Jonathan Kaplan’s Love Field (written by Don Roos) at least has the assassination organic to the plot at first; the movie centers on Lurene (Michelle Pfeiffer), a Dallas housewife obsessed with Jackie Kennedy (early on in the movie, she drives out to Love Field airport in hopes of getting to talk to her), and when Kennedy is shot, she’s determined to get to the funeral at any cost, defying her husband (Brian Kerwin) to do so. But the movie soon drifts into a plot involving her and Paul (Dennis Haysbert), who’s traveling with his daughter, and throws in a whole number of plot contrivances at the expense of real feeling, even in dealing with Lurene’s grief over the assassination and the interracial romance between her and Paul. And that quote from Night Moves I posted at the top turns out to be a bit of misdirection to prevent Harry (Gene Hackman) from asking too many questions about what had happened with his character earlier.

Parkland: Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) shooting what would become the most famous home movie in American history.

Are depictions of that day involving the people actively involved automatically exploitative, or do they shed some light on the situation? The 1964 documentary Four Days in November, directed by Mel Stuart (mostly known for directing other documentaries, though he also did the original adaptation of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, starring Gene Wilder) and produced by David L. Wolper (Roots) uses newsreel footage of the time, along with some staged re-creations (though not in the same way they’re done today; it’s mostly shooting some of the locations as they were a year later, and traveling along the routes people like Oswald and Ruby would have taken) to show the events and people’s reactions to them. The music (by Elmer Bernstein) is overdone, as is the narration by veteran actor Richard Basehart (it was written by Theodore Strauss), but it does get to you. This is more than can be said, unfortunately, for Peter Landesman’s movie Parkland, which came out this past September (and is already on DVD). You may not agree with the conclusions of the Vincent Bugliosi book this is based on (originally titled Four Days in November, and taken from his much longer book Reclaiming History), but at least his cross-section of what was going on in Dallas, Washington D.C. and elsewhere is readable and pulls you in. Landesman, a journalist (his article on sex slaves was the basis for the movie Trade, starring Kevin Kline; he later came under fire when he was accused of making part of it up), tries for a similar approach, but there’s too much banal dialogue and scenes where it’s clear he had no idea where to put the camera. There are a lot of well-known faces here (Paul Giamatti as Abraham Zapruder, Zac Efron and Colin Hanks as doctors, Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Welling as Secret Service agents, Jacki Weaver as Oswald’s mother), but the only person who makes any sort of impression here is James Badge Dale as Lee Harvey Oswald’s brother Robert, as Dale is the only one who bothers to internalize any of the emotion his character feels. Adam Braver’s novel November 22, 1963 starts out in a similar fashion, but mostly narrates its focus to imagining the state of mind of Jackie Kennedy. This might seem to ultimate in exploitation, but Braver actually does grant Kennedy her dignity, and it comes off as touching instead, even though the novel itself is too diffuse.

The most honestly depicted reactions to Kennedy’s death, at least that I’ve seen, are the ones that show characters reactions long after the event. One of the many subplots of Robert Altman’s 1975 film Nashville (written by Joan Tewksbury) involves John Triplette (Michael Murphy), an aide to Replacement Party candidate Hal Walker (never seen), trying to organize a rally for Walker and trying to recruit singers such as Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) to appear at the rally. At a party at Hamilton’s house, he and his wife, Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley) politely but firmly inform Triplette that Hamilton never allows himself to endorse any politician specifically. Pearl, with a slight catch in her voice, does admit she worked for Kennedy and his brother, “but they were different”. Later in the movie, when several of the characters are at a club, Pearl is sitting with Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), a BBC reporter, and Opal notices Pearl is wearing a Kennedy button, which prompts Pearl to reminisce about Kennedy’s run for President (“He took the whole South except for Tennessee, Florida and Kentucky”), the anti-Catholicism she encountered, and how scared she was for Robert Kennedy when she worked for him. What makes it all work so well is not just the fact Altman doesn’t only focus on Pearl (showing, for example, Triplette continuing to try and persuade Hamilton to appear at the rally, as well as the music), but also because while you can see how the event continues to affect Pearl, she never lets herself slip into bathos or make it all about her (Baxley helped come up with the dialogue for the scene, according to Murphy). Then there’s the end, when Altman subverts our expectations that Walker might appear and get shot; it’s a musician that gets shot and killed instead, and Hamilton, who’s wounded, urges everyone to stay calm during they melee by asserting, “This isn’t Dallas; it’s Nashville!”

In The Line Of Fire: Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) being taunted about JFK’s assassination.

Although Wolfgang Peterson’s 1993 film In The Line of Fire (written by Jeff Maguire) comes in the form of a thriller – aging Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) tries to stop ex-CIA agent Mitch Leary (John Malkovich) from assassinating the current president – it also touches on the Kennedy assassination. Horrigan is portrayed as someone who was there in the motorcade when Kennedy was shot (he was based on real-life Secret Service agent Clint Hill“), and Leary is constantly taunting him about the fact he didn’t react in time to step in front of the bullet and whether his own life was just too precious to do his job properly. Horrigan doesn’t like talking about those days, especially with Leary but with anybody (when Lily Raines (Rene Russo), another agent, asks about the time Kennedy’s girlfriend was caught in the White House and Horrigan claimed she was with him, Horrigan only says, “That was different. He was different”). Finally, near the end of the movie, when Raines has to tell Horrigan he’s off the President’s detail, Horrigan finally talks about it:

You know, for years now I’ve listened to all these idiots on barstools, with their pet theories on Dallas. How it was the Cubans, or the CIA, or the white supremacists, or the Mob. Whether there was one weapon, or whether there was five. None of that’s meant too much to me. But Leary… he questioned whether I had the guts to take that fatal bullet. God, that was a beautiful day. The sun was out, been raining all morning, the air was… First shot sounded like a firecracker. I looked over, I saw him, I could tell he was hit. I don’t know why I didn’t react. I should have reacted. I should have been running flat-out. I just couldn’t believe it. If only I’d reacted, I could have taken that shot. And that would have been alright with me.

What makes the scene all the more moving is Eastwood, who normally didn’t get too emotional as an actor except when he was showing anger, finally letting his facade break down (in an unscripted move, Russo takes his hand after this speech, causing his eyes to fill up). But again, as in Nashville, we’re given a sense of history with what happened, and not just one character (or several) feeling the need to express emotions about the event, and it’s done with dignity, not bathos. Perhaps if more works of art depicting reactions to the Kennedy assassination were done like this, even with the generational factor, it would feel as moving as intended.

*-Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally (written by Nora Ephron), from 1989, drives this point home when Jess (Bruno Kirby) compliments Harry (Billy Crystal) on his younger girlfriend, and Harry replies, “Of course, when I asked her where she was when Kennedy was shot, she said, ‘Kennedy was shot?'”, and Jess winces. A different kind of misunderstanding arises in the novel version of Marathon Man; when Babe (the novel’s hero) is out walking with his dissertation professor Biesenthal (a former student of Babe’s father) when they happen by a bookstore with a picture of Kennedy in the display window (along with posters of Che Guevara and Bette Midler). Biesenthal asks Babe where he was when “he” died; Babe assumes Biesenthal meant Kennedy, and tells about a jock who told him when they were in high school, and since the joke wasn’t the smartest person in the world, Babe didn’t believe him at first. However, it turned out Biesenthal meant Babe’s father.

**-If I can be permitted my own self-indulgence for the moment; to the best of my knowledge, this was the first film I had seen depicting the reaction to Kennedy’s death, and my mother, who went to see this with me, said the reaction was pretty much true to life.

`-It’s important to remember, of course, there were those who actually either celebrated Kennedy’s death or didn’t see much to grieve about it. Among the most notorious reactions in the latter camp came from Malcolm X with his “chickens come home to roost” comment (Spike Lee’s Malcolm X recreates that moment – and uses footage from Oliver Stone’s JFK – as well as Elijah Mohammad’s (Al Freeman Jr.) subsequent suspension of Malcolm X (Denzel Washington).

“-Jim Lehrer’s recent novel Top Down: A Novel of the Kennedy Assassination, is also partly inspired by Hill, with a reporter trying to help a Secret Service agent who has become desolate in the years after the assassination because he thinks it’s all his fault. It’s not a bad story, but it is told in a rather plodding, perfunctory style.

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