Friday, March 26, 2010

The Book You Have to Read: “The Great Zapruder Film Hoax,” by James H. Fetzer

(Editor’s note: This is the 87th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s pick comes from Michael Atkinson, author of Hemingway Deadlights [2009], which he describes as the first book in “a projected series, gallivanting around in the most famous literary biography of the 20th century with negligible respect for history but a veins-in-the-teeth yen for truth, irony, cocktails and the good graces of a well-turned sentence.” The sequel, Hemingway Cutthroat, is expected to be released later this year by Minotaur Books. When not sending Ernest Hemingway into trouble, Atkinson is a film critic and widely published poet.)

I’ve rarely been as completely bedeviled by a true-crime book as I was by James H. Fetzer’s The Great Zapruder Film Hoax: Deceit and Deception in the Death of JFK (2003), one of the newest and most outlandish tomes tossed onto the huge pile of books already dedicated to what is, quite possibly, the most epic unsolved crime of 20th-century America. By now, with Fetzer’s book, published by the secretive conspiracy-theorist firm Catfeet Press, investigative culture has moved beyond wondering who was responsible for the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy--a matter that true conspiracists may be agnostic about at this point. Not only may we never find out the answer, but it may in fact be unknowable. The question that remains is whether that assassination happened at all--or, at least, whether it happened the way we thought, where and when we thought. Reality itself is under the microscope.

Personally, I’m sympathetic--conspiracy freaks turn me on even when they’re crazy, because they’re the ultimate questioners of power. And crazy doesn’t always mean wrong. Go ahead and define “conspiracy theory” as the terror-stricken belief that cataclysmic events are the handiwork of a covert federation of organizations and individuals operating under the public radar for their own self-serving reasons, and that we--the newspaper readers, voters, tax-payers, and television slaves--are being manipulated and lied to as our society is exploited for reasons understood only to the conspirators. What else is new? Doesn’t that clearly describe a lot of 20th-century history (and almost all eight years of the Bush administration)?

There’s no point in denying that conspiracists do have something legitimate to worry about. As even several congressional committees have admitted by now, the JFK assassination was a conspiracy. That’s official. If you accuse FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover of the 1969 assassination of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, how would that make you a paranoid nut and not merely a reader of The New York Times? Much of the dismissive discussion about conspiracy theories (JFK, 9/11, and others) proceeds today as if, say, President Lyndon B. Johnson didn’t lie about the Gulf of Tonkin; as if Operation Ajax hadn’t happened or hadn’t been exposed in the Times; as if Watergate were just a hotel; as if COINTELPRO had not been exposed; as if Henry Kissinger didn’t conspire toward the illegal decimations of Indochina, Bangladesh, Chile, Indonesia, and Iraq; as if the Reagan Doctrine hadn’t semi-secretly turned Central America into a butcher’s basket; as if Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney hadn’t written up plans to wage war on Iraq and North Korea in 1992, and so on. What’s not to be suspicious about? In the last 50 years Americans have outpaced all their competition in terms of obsession and dread, because this is where the money trail leads. It’s as simple as that. Conspiracies are the norm.

Still, Fetzer’s book takes off into a speculative/analytic ozone from which your brain may never return. In 483 densely packed pages, the author (who sports a Ph.D. after his name and is a now-retired professor from the University of Minnesota) makes the case that the Zapruder film--a home movie showing President Kennedy on his last, deadly motorcade ride through Dallas, Texas’ Dealey Plaza, and is supposedly the inviolable yardstick by which all JFK theories are measured (including the Warren Report)--is not an authentic document. In literally dozens of different ways, Fetzer strives to demonstrate how the film has been edited and optically printed to such a radical extent that it can only be considered a work of complete fiction. You confront this premise with pure incredulity: How could something so simple as an 8-mm chunk of film, one so rough and amateurish, one that is so plainly a single, uninterrupted shot; how could this have been manipulated? Fetzer has theories about “who,” but they remain largely unexplored; his emphasis is on “proving” the film’s illegitimacy.

Which he does ... kind of. The sleuthing approach is fourth-gear techie-mania, like a never-ending episode of CSI devoted to a single piece of confounding evidence. Fetzer and his co-writers and cohorts focus on missing frames, background image distortion or lack of it, inconsistencies in focus, the rate at which the film was shot (16 frames per second, it’s presumed) versus the rate at which it was printed (24 fps), and the subtle aspect-ratio variations in various “versions” of the film as it has been selectively released to the public. They also offer up, most maddeningly, reams of speculative “evidence”--based on “off” perspectives and contradictions with photographs taken by others on the scene--that people, signs, and landscape elements were added or subtracted from Zapruder’s original, wherever or whatever that may be. At least, we can all agree, there shouldn’t be two or more “versions” of it, should there? Because there are.

Sounds crazy, I know. Who could’ve done all that to a rough piece of slender home movie in 1963? But Fetzer has an answer, exploring the optical printing technology of the time, which absolutely was capable of fabricating and altering ostensibly “homemade images,” most of which are so blurry in the film’s printed form (the work of Life magazine and U.S. intelligence agencies) that it may be impossible to say what belongs in the image and what doesn’t. Of course, the fact that the camera negative of the film has never been, and may never be, available to scrutiny only strengthens Fetzer’s position.

Or at least he thinks so. Typical of conspiracy discourse, this book is jam-packed with outrageous supposition and assertive conjecture--every hint at discrepancy is rock-hard proof of skulduggery, practically from the first page. The general voice is that of the indignant, persecuted apostate, who takes every opportunity to proclaim his own brilliance. It remains open to interpretation whether or not the book has a case to make--that is, whether it is investigating a real and not imagined phenomenon, and therefore reveals a concept of official American power many times more terrifying than the darkest doubts we may’ve harbored so far, Oliver Stone or no Oliver Stone. But it’s a trip in the reading, wherever you stand at the outset--a walk through the brainpan of a titanically obsessive paranoid, which has the suction of an opiate the more you begin to suspect, that however insane Fetzer may be, he might just be a little right. What if he is? And a little right is all he needs to bring the nightmares.


Anonymous said...

Fetzer is an absolute nutjob. The zapruder film is authentic. Science, and other films shot that day confirm it. Only kooks argue that it isn't.

Austin Carr said...

What a bunch of crap.

fiasco said...

why the conspirators would ALTER Zapruder film and leave there the proof of conspiracy it already shows?????? makes no sense... they would have destroy the piece better that altering it...