Back And to the Future: The Eternal Return to Dealey Plaza

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Dealey Plaza is iconic. As architecture and urban planning, fifty years ago it would have appeared super smart and manicured, a neat combination of commerce, transit, and a city on the move. But there are many Dealey Plazas.

David Cox



Dealey Plaza Coordinates: 32.77903°N 96.80867°W

Give us this day our Dealey Plaza

Kevin Costner points to a model of Dealey Plaza in the courtroom scene of JFK directed by Oliver Stone, 1991.

Dealey Plaza is iconic. As architecture and urban planning, fifty years ago in 1963 it would have appeared super smart and manicured, a neat combination of commerce, transit, and a city on-the move. The white concrete John Neely Bryan pergola structure, the grass park areas or knoll, the curving 3-lane freeway leading to the underpass appears to us now as a totality in the popular imagination. It’s a protected landmark after all. We can picture it immediately; that broad sun-drenched Texas urban modernity has come, through repetition of representation, through a thousand documentaries and movies, to resemble something of a tragic, reverent operatic stage set.

There are many Dealey Plazas. Like there are many Elvis Presleys. The early thin Elvis, the later overweight one, the Presley of bad musical movies, the Presley of the Army in Germany (John Lennon: "Elvis died for me when he joined the Army"). The Dealey Plazas, like the Elvises meld together in the imagination, overlapping.

All those mediated representations meld together—that curve of the road, that rise of the knoll, that white concrete pergola structure, the trees, the railway overpass, the triangle shapes of the fence that may or may not have been used to rest the rifle on that took the life of the president, that unmistakable brick building with that Hertz Rent-a-Car sign on top. The Lincoln Continental, the Police motorcycles, the Bell and Howell movie camera, the gun, and the architecture and pageantry of power and death all intermingle in that one "ground zero" of the 1960s postwar American imaginary. They form a Zapruder dance routine, over and over and over, never ending, as if in a kind of snow dome snuff movie.

Then we zoom out and see that what we are looking at is indeed a model. It is one of the scale models of Dealey Plaza that have been constructed for various courtroom reenactments. Men in suits and crew cuts stand over it with thin sticks pointing to this detail or that. Kevin Costner, in full outraged lawyer mode, points out the fence near the grassy knoll in JFK's courtroom scenes. These movie reconstructions of the courtroom reenactments have given the otherwise rather banal plaza locale layers of significance that the place likely would not have achieved without the gravity of events that took place there in 1963.

Hidden in Plain View

The USA’s fascination with its own relatively short history, particularly with the spectacle of conflict occurring on its own soil can be seen reflected in the regular staging of dramatic popular reenactments. Civil War battles staged by period costumed volunteers, cowboy outfitted western six-gun high-noon reconstructions, or brash on-the-hour-every-hour stagings of blockbuster movie moments at Las Vegas casinos or Florida and Los Angeles theme parks for tourists come to mind. Missed it? Wait an hour and why not try the slots while you do?

The desire to reconstruct events or perform re-enactments speaks to an impulse to "live through" that event in history; to "wear" the event like a suit. The ancient Greek notion of the Eternal Return presumes the universe has been thus recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar form an infinite number of times across the vastness of endless time and space. Like a quantum mechanics time and place trick, and like a well-paid professional assassin, it is hidden in plain view.

The Event

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was assassinated at 12:30 p.m. Central Standard Time (18:30 UTC) on Friday, November 22, 1963, in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas.

Looking at the endless documentaries, books, and movies on the Kennedy subject (you must remember this) you can see Walter Cronkite now on CBS TV news then, that bushy mustache, those horn-rimmed glasses, in high contrast, typewriters chattering behind him, trying to compose himself on camera as he takes in the enormity of what is happening. The event has cut a hole in time.

Walter Cronkite reads the news of JFK's death on CBS news.

Since Kennedy's killing, reenactments have been staged by various actors for various purposes. Some official, others for the purposes of fiction or drama, and yet others to make an artistic statement.

The Zapruder Film

The only surviving complete record of the actual event is Abraham Zapruder's 8mm home movie film. Since it became available for use by the general public, it has been the key reference for details for reconstructions from that day to this, with whatever technology and social sentiment prevailing. Zapruder's camera was an 8 mm Bell & Howell Zoomatic Director Series Model 414 PD. It was the top of the line when it was purchased in 1962.

Abraham Zapruder's 8mm home movie of the Kennedy Assassination

Zapruder stood perched, movie camera in hand, on top of a nearby concrete block forming part of the Bryan pergola as the limousine passed beneath him. His shaky handheld footage (you can tell he's zoomed in) caught the moments of impact with chilling clarity. There is Kennedy and his wife, emerging from behind the road sign, elbows angled out and up, both fists under his chin in some hideous reflex at the pain and shock of the first bullet having pierced his throat, before a second later, as the car slows inexplicably to a halt…a final bullet delivers the fatal blow to the side of his head.

Jackie, in a panic, horrified, reaches to the back of the car, is joined by a secret service agent. The car accelerates under the overpass and out of sight and out of history. She is reported to have screamed, "My God! They’ll kill us all!" But Zapruder's film has no sound. The whole event unfolds noiselessly in broad Dallas sunlight like a silent nightmare.

The Zapruder Kodak 8mm movie film has been broken down into individual frames, each scrutinized meticulously by tens of thousands of scholars, writers, lawyers, and conspiracy buffs. It has become a kind of talismanic Rosetta stone, a media archeological palimpsest, which as an iconic record of a momentous event has been, like the venue it records, shocked out of its own banality by the historical weight of being in the right place at the right time.

Zapruder and Artists

Keith Sanborn's film The Zapruder Footage: An Investigation into a Consensual Hallucination interrogates the footage for some kind of inner truth that might reveal itself in sheer repetition, but there is none to be found. The more you look, the less you see.

What might Guy Debord have read into the event? Television and urban planning and event management all meld into one. The spectacle of so open an ambush in so public a setting speaks volumes about the assassins themselves. In picking the plaza for its overall supposed military advantage (elevation this, triangulation that etc. etc..), these men were probably as squared-away, to-the-point, pragmatic and fine-trimmed as the location.They were managers.

They were what William Burroughs, in his Nothing Here Now But the Recordings, calls "The Crab Men," moving sideways through history, avoiding the spotlight, always shifting underfoot and out of the way of real exposure. They will never be caught. They have "plausible deniability":

"Are these the words of the all-powerful boards and syndicates of the earth?
And don't whatever you do let them see us..."

Made almost literally of the same uncelebrated stuff as that humdrum Dallas plaza, the seditious Crabmen are from that early '60s Helvetica anonymous no-zone of black suits, cigarettes, crew cuts, secret phone calls, concealed microphones, nondescript motels, shiny black shoes, and shiny black Lincoln Continentals. They represent backroom deals, black ops, the toppling of democratically-elected popular officials. Crabmen are right-wing, corporate, deadly, dull and pragmatic.

Irrespective of the motives or methods of the killers, over which much time and energy has already been spent, is the simple fact that the act itself took place in full daylight and in full public view. This was of all things a most open and exposed public execution, for the entire world—old men, young women, children, babies, everyone—to see and hear. The world was supposed to witness the death of Kennedy, and the shockwaves that the event created were meant to be public and to be felt globally. This was coup, and those behind it wanted everyone to know they were back in charge. For them, the war, any war... never ended.

Paul J. Burke computer diagram of Dealey Plaza, 1993

It follows that attempts to understand the event also took place in public and in Dealey Plaza itself or its virtual equivalent, in a kind of theatrical, open air, live-action role playing way, the better that those performing the endless subsequent reenactments can find through the act of going through the motions as it were presumably some kind of better understanding of what happened. The historical or cinematic re-enactor, like the cargo-cult tribesman, makes a crude mock-up with whatever materials are at hand to invoke the original event, the better to fathom that event's meaning.

In 2003 animator Dale K. Myers used motion geometry from the Zapruder film to create a computer generated Maya 3D software model and animation of the assassination in order to view the event from all angles. He not only painstakingly recreated the models and motion of the cars, buildings, and topography of the plaza environment, but also the XYZ motion tracking data based on the camera shake of Zapruder's Bell & Howell. He also animated a virtual JFK and Governor Connolly sitting in the Lincoln Continental. Myers used his highly detailed Maya model of the entire Dealey Plaza to "conclude" that the multiple gunshots were (supposedly) fired from a single position (the first of the shots is traced in his animation in a single line back up to the Texas book depository building), thus discounting, in his mind at least, the notion of a conspiracy.

Dale K. Myers animation, 2003

Motion geometry from the Zapruder film was applied to a full-scale computer model of the shooting scene, resulting in a virtual model capable of being photographed and measured from any angle or position.

It’s the obsessive attention to detail that is fascinating. Not so much the 3D computer model itself, as detailed as it is, or the eerie way in which the 3D animation when viewed seems to match that of the motion of the original standard 8mm footage, but the fastidious nature of Myer's quest to do so. There is a yearning almost, in evidence of this work, to get inside the Zapruder footage, to have it divulge dimensions that it does not and cannot possess, to unfold like an origami structure into this angle and that, and to have what is, after all a simple home movie confess what it cannot know about the angle of this bullet or that, trajectory of this deflection or that exit wound, and on and on. A more detailed model of a place, however, does not make the theory about what happened there any more or less accurate.

Obsessive attention to detail in model building to test a hypothesis, to "prove" a notion (in this case that Oswald was the lone gunman) however has seldom been met with such dedication. Myer's animation was featured in the "The Kennedy Assassination: Beyond Conspiracy" aired on ABC television network in 2003.

May 23-24, 1964 FBI Reenactment of the Kennedy Assassination

The 1964 FBI Dealey Plaza reconstruction film in black and white shows a group of FBI officials using one of the secret service cars from the fatal motorcade the year earlier to try to work out where the bullets came from. They stop the car on Elm Street and take some measurements with rulers and tape. Filmed in long focus in black and white 16mm, everyone is a man, and all are wearing suits and hats. It is all clipboards, sunglasses, and clip-ons. There is an almost casual feel to the scene.

Gas-s-s-s

The Roger Corman 1971 hippie-sploitation movie Gas-s-s-s is a post-apocalyptic dark comedy about survivors of an accidental military gas leak of an experimental agent that kills everyone on Earth over the age of twenty-five. Forced out of Dallas by campy whip-wielding sadists, the protagonists drive right over the spot where Kennedy was shot as three gunshots ring out . "Say goodbye to Dallas Cilla, we've seen that type of law here before!" says the main character Coel, as they drive to the Dallas outskirts and beyond to look for more surviving freaks under twenty-five to rebuild America from the ground up. A brightly-colored, psychedelically painted military truck follows them with the Texas book depository seen in the background.

Executive Action

In the excellent David Miller-directed 1973 thriller "Executive Action", Burt Lancaster's character is the single-minded businesslike mastermind of the bloody anti-Kennedy coup. He has ordered a group of 10-gallon hat wearing good ol' boys to practice shooting at a moving target, a junked out 1940s limousine pulled by a tow-car filled with storeroom dummies sitting where the officials should be, somewhere out in the desert.

The whole setup is designed to resemble the Dallas Presidential motorcade but in a remote outback desert road area, far from prying eyes. The desolation of the desert is matched only by the hearts of the conspirators in their contempt for both Kennedy and for democracy.

The Eternal Frame

The Eternal Frame was a reconstruction of the assassination performed in situ of a different kind. A collaboration between two San Francisco-based artist collectives, T.R. Uthco (Diane Andrews Hall, Doug Hall, Jody Procter) and Ant Farm (Chip Lord, Doug Michels, Curtis Schreier) who staged their now timeless and audacious reenactment of the JFK assassination in Dallas in 1975, using a limousine as close to the original one as they could find, "Jackie Kennedy" played in drag, and "Governor Connolly" implausibly decked out in what looks like a blonde, dime-store wig. They found that to their amazement, the local police, instead of closing them down, started to play the ultimate role-play part, and proceeded to give them an official escort, presidential motorcade style, with police motorcycles. Thus, with each pass (there were several) around the oval, Dealey Plaza, more and more spectators arrived.

That which had started as a knowing art-gesture, Warholian punk parody, quickly became a somber local memorial to the actual event, drawing more and more historical weight with each pass around the block.

From the video component of The Eternal Frame, T.R. Uthco (Diane Andrews Hall, Doug Hall, Jody Procter) and Ant Farm(Chip Lord, Doug Michels, Curtis Schreier).

Ant Farm and T.R Uthco called their work of performance art The Eternal Frame. It was recorded using super 8mm film (a format actually not available in 1963) and then up-to-the-minute portable video gear. The strikingly well-rehearsed moves of the players gave the impression of the killing happening all over again but without the gunshots, without the sheer terror, just the performative essence of the event, like the silent Zapruder footage, and reduced to a series of discrete moves, a head snap here, a reach-to-the-back-of-the-car there. A danse macabre of pure spectacle.

The Eternal Frame was attempting on one level to problematize the way the JFK Assassination had become as an image of repetition made familiar alongside all the other images into the broad mainstream of popular culture. By inserting a postmodern ironic sensibility into the tragedy through performance, the aim was to critique this familiarity/acceptance of images themselves. Interviews the artists have given suggest that they found that the invisible force-field of the place turned back somewhat, on them. The performers were quite moved by the whole process. The touching empathy of the local Dallas passers-by for example, to what they had assumed, naively, but understandably, to be a genuine gesture of remembrance for a fallen leader would give the most urbane performance artist pause for reflection. Far from being only a daring but risqué, open-air, camp, Fluxus-style art gesture, the artists had also created an apparently impromptu memorial for people for whom this particular tragedy had, indeed, been very close to home.

You Are Oswald: JFK Reloaded

Traffic Games in 2004 released a video game that places the player in the position of Lee Harvey Oswald and his supposed position in the Book Depository Building’s sixth floor "sniper’s nest." JFK Reloaded tests the boundaries of taste, to say the least, but falls into a similar category as Myer's linear 3D animation in terms of its in-the-round representation of a virtual Dealey Plaza, offering a kind of interactive hybrid of both Zapruder's and Oswald's subjectivity. As the motorcade starts its inevitable eternal return, you take your place behind Oswald's telescopic sight. When the deed is done the game becomes a TV broadcast style playback system, where you can view the evil handiwork from multiple angles.

Sold with the tissue-thin "premise" of offering a means to "test" the viability of the officially-backed Warren Commission's findings that Lee Harvey Oswald, from his perch in the Book Depository Building, was the lone assassin, the game is essentially a Presidential murder simulator. The player is invited to perform the onerous act virtually, and "analyze" the results in multi-angle playback controls for this camera view and that.

Lev Manovich writes in The Language of New Media that 3D computer simulator games resemble the early 20th century Russian constructivist sensibility. Dziga Vertov’s radical 1929 "Kino-Eye" film manifesto The Man with a Movie Camera employed every cinematic trick in the book to collapse the distinction between camera operator and cinema audience member. Modern multi-angle views in flight simulators and car simulators, train simulators, etc. reflect the same spatial and temporal montage sensibility according to Manovich.

To switch views in real time, to have multiple views simultaneously, and to offer the ability to do so to a player, implies a radical kind of subjectivity, and an atemporal, and aspatial way of perceiving the universe.

JFK Reloaded only offers a single firing position for its player-as-Oswald role-play. That section is supposed to be "historical." The multi-angle view choice- making can be done once, thus, as "Oswald" you have taken your shots at the helpless JFK and the camera angles chosen as the "film" of the event "play back."

In mediating the collective cultural memory of the event as one fundamentally lensed – that is one defined by singular visions and points of view--sniper scopes or movie camera viewfinders-- the game occupies an interesting cultural place, all questionable ethics aside.

From a cultural studies perspective, the game-as-text could be read as a critique of the notion that CIA man Oswald's individual guilt/responsibility,(irrespective of his actual culpability or otherwise in the crime) was something separate from the military industrial complex of which was a part. As in all first person shooters the gameplay distils motive from act. JFK is just another target, stripped of the symbolic weight of office, he's just a virtual dummy in a car.

Games and movies often blithely use historical events as banal backdrops to otherwise mainstream melodramas. Video games "set" in Vietnam (for example Call of Duty: Band of Brothers Vietnam) made by designers probably too young to have even been born during the conflict come to mind. To many game designers, well under thirty years old, one suspects the broad notion "Vietnam" represents just another "historical" backdrop for a cool shooter. Like others of my generation (I turned 50 this year) it is difficult to accept that for many half my age, the Beatles are as remote a cultural force as Mozart, so why should the JFK assassination be any more "respected" than the famous battles of say, the Civil War (to which, arguably, it is related)? JFK Reloaded? Sure! Set em up! We'll prove that Warren Commission Right or Wrong!—after it all just boils down to whether Oswald could hit that target from that window in the time he had, right? Can you do it? Let's see your high score, bro!!

Oliver Stone's JFK

Oliver Stone went to great lengths and cost to recreate the Dealey Plaza of November 1963 for his 1991 film "JFK". He even repositioned the iconic "Hertz Rent-a-Car" sign atop the Texas Book Depository. Locals were amazed at the time warp they found themselves in. I asked Texas-born friend and fellow filmmaker Bill Daniel to recount a story he told me in San Francisco at ATA Gallery back in 1992 after the movie "JFK" was released, about his encounter with the event, both real, and Oliver Stone-mediated. Here is Bill Daniel's encounter with "The Twilight Zone" in Dealey Plaza, 1991:

The first time, I was 4 years old. I only remember seeing my mother crying while she was standing in front of the TV set. We lived in Dallas. I remember what that looked like, my mother and that small black and white TV in our bare suburban living room. We were supposed to be going to a parade that day. I didn't know what a presidential assassination was, but I knew that a parade was a deal where you go and they throw candy for kids and you would scramble on the pavement to pick it up. The parade was cancelled. I was unhappy.

The next time I had an opportunity to witness the assassination was 28 years later. I was riding a freight train from San Francisco to Houston, shooting 16mm film for a documentary I was making on hobo culture. I'd been on the trip for about a week by the time the train was passing through downtown Dallas, and I was in a kind of foggy, exhausted state on mind. As we approached downtown I noticed that all the cars were 50s and early 60s era. "Must be a vintage car club meet..." I thought. Then I looked up at the school book depository building and thought, "Huh? Why is the old Hertz Rent A Car sign back up? It's been gone for years. Weird."

I was a bit of a JFK conspiracy fan, I loved Rush to Judgement: the cheap black and white film stock, the unnerving noise the old lavalier microphone picked up as it moved back and forth rubbing against the suit of the nervous interviewee (who would be dead in a matter of months after the interview). So when my train and the open flat car I was riding on approached Dealy Plaza I was suddenly thrilled. "I'm going to go over the famous Triple Overpass. Oh boy!"

The tracks have a low speed limit though this section, 5 or 10 miles an hour, so the following scene played out in a strange, slower-than-life pace. The train came up behind the fence at the top of the grassy knoll. "That's where the second gunman was!" I probably shouted aloud. Then, the whole Dealy Plaza panorama rolled into my view. "Holy shit!" The entire goddamn 1963 presidential motorcade was rounding the corner onto Commerce Street and driving right into Oswald's sights just as I was rolling over the bridge above the scene. For about 3 seconds there in Dallas I believed I had lost my mind on this brain-rattling train trip. It was the closest I've ever been to The Twilight Zone. Thank god the next thing I saw was a Panavision camera on a crane. In my dazed state I began to recognize the rest of the film production's gear; generator trucks, wardrobe trailers. "It's only a movie, it's only a movie..."

My shock was heightened by the fact that I had no idea that Oliver Stone was making a JFK film. Lucky that I don't follow Hollywood news. Anyway, I grabbed for my trusty Bolex so I had the chance to film some of the reenactment myself, but couldn't get to it in time to get a shot. But luckily again, I happened to be driving back through Dallas a week later, and luckily Oliver Stone did weeks of shooting and re-shooting the motorcade scene so I had the opportunity to actually film some of the action myself with my trusty Bolex. I was able to poach several good angles as they continued to run the motorcade through the plaza. Finally I figured I'd get the ultimate POV, from the triple overpass. But once there my luck ran out. A security PA spotted me and took off after me, yelling madly into his walkie talkie, "Hey there's a guy up here with a Zapruder-like camera..." I managed to out run him, yelling back, "Bullshit! Zapruder was shooting 8 millimeter. This is 16!"

Conclusion:the Fourth Dimension

I don't think I can top Bill Daniel's awesome anecdote about his encounter with the Twilight Zone that is/was Dealey Plaza as mediated spectacular space, so I'll drive the limo through the underpass of Umberto Eco's finale to his book Travels in Hyperreality from the aptly named chapter "The Fortress of Solitude":

It has been said that, in a century or in a millennium, gladiator movies will be watched as if they were authentic Roman movies, dating back to the era of the Roman empire, as real documentaries on Ancient Rome; that in the John Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, a pastiche of a Pompeian villa, will be confused, in an anachronistic manner, with a villa of the third century B.C. (including the pieces inside from Rembrandt, Fra Angelico, everything confused in a single crush of time); that the celebration of the French Revolution in Los Angeles in 1989 will retrospectively be confused with the real revolutionary event. Disney realizes de facto such an a temporal utopia by producing all the events, past or future, on simultaneous screens, and by inexorably mixing all the sequences as they would or will appear to a different civilization than ours. But it is already ours. It is more and more difficult for us to imagine the real, History, the depth of time, or three-dimensional space, just as before it was difficult, from our real world perspective, to imagine a virtual universe or the fourth dimension.



—San Francisco, October 12, 2013


Resources Cited

Motion Pictures

Executive Action, directed b David Miller.

JFK, directed by Oliver Stone.

Gas-s-s-s, directed by Roger Corman.

The Manchurian Candidate, directed by John Frankenheimer


Videogames

JFK Reloaded, 2004, Traffic Games.


YouTube

FBI Reenactment, 1964.

"Say Goodbye to Dallas" scene from Gas-s-s-s.

The Eternal Frame, by T.R. Uthco and Ant Farm: Doug Hall, Chip Lord, Doug Michels, Jody Procter. 1975, 23:50 min, b&w and color, sound.

Essay on the Eternal Frame, Electronic Arts Intermix.

Intro to The Eternal Frame film on Vimeo. Doug Hall and Diane Andrews Hall from T.R. Uthco and Chip Lord from Ant Farm discuss the video. Hosted by Constance Lewallen

The Eternal Frame at the Aksioma Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana.


Related websites:

Occupy the Grassy Knoll. Interesting protest website on the way that the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination is supposedly being stage-managed to prevent unwanted protest.

LBJ Presidential Library.

Air Force One.

Official Dealey Plaza Resources Sixth Floor Museum.

Five “Must See” JFK Assassination Spots at Dealey Plaza.

Peter Jennings Reporting: The Kennedy Assassination, Beyond Conspiracy. Includes the Derek Myers 2003 3D Animated reconstruction.

Google Maps Dealey Plaza Link.


Books:

Travels in HyperReality, The Fortress of Solitude by Umberto Eco. New York, 1990, Mariner Books; First Harvest/HBJ,ISBN-10: 0156913216.


Thanks to filmmaker Bill Daniel, my wife Molly Hankwitz, and Mike Mosher. Movie camera pictured at end of article is the Bell and Howell Zoomatic Standard 8mm Clockwork movie camera, used by Abraham Zapruder to film the John F. Kennedy Assassination.



David Cox is a filmmaker, artist, writer and teacher based in San Francisco.

Copyright © David Cox. All rights reserved.

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