Inventing Vietnam: The War in Film and Television (Culture And The Moving Image)

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The iconic power of these few film frames derives from what they demonstrate about the camera's technical ability to capture a crucial moment, to tell the story unseen by the "naked" eye. The Zapruder film thus changed over time from an amateur home movie to a copyrighted news image to a piece of legal and historical evidence to "evidence" of a conspiracy.

This filmed image, so central to the American historical consciousness, so inseparable from the event itself, has played a particular role in symbolizing Kennedy's life and what is scripted in retrospect as America's loss of national innocence. The instant captured in this film is historicized as the moment when the country changed, when it went from being a nation of promise, good intentions, and youthful optimism to one of cynicism, violence, and pessimism.

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This historical narrative not only promotes a simplistic nostalgia about the America of the s and the "Camelot" years of the Kennedy administration but also prevents healing from taking place. As Michael Rogin writes:. The widespread feeling that America began to fall apart after Kennedy was killed prolongs national mourning The unresolved assassination, combined with Kennedy's complicity with the forces suspected of doing him in, has blocked a national mourning of the president he actually was, encouraging the regression from what [Melanie] Klein calls the depressive position, where loss can be acknowledged and overcome, to idealization, splitting, and paranoia.

The trope of America's losing its innocence at a precise moment is a well-worn one, a concept reiterated with Pearl Harbor, the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the Oklahoma City bombing, and other events. The "regression" noted by Rogin is inextricable from the idea that the moment of the assassination, the instant captured by Zapruder, changed everything. In a certain sense, it is not possible to imagine the event in the absence of the Zapruder images.

The film has become the event. That the assassination, whether photographed or not, would be an ongoing subject of debate is incontrovertible. The existence of the film opened the door for scientific inquiry, but the sequence clearly has defied such analysis. The image withholds its truth, clouds its evidence, and tells us, finally, nothing.

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Science cannot fix the meaning of the Zapruder film precisely because the narrative of national and emotional loss outweighs empirical investigation. We cannot have, perhaps ultimately do not want to have, a definitive answer to why and how it happened--the answer is potentially overwhelming. Hence, fantasies about what happened are as important in national meaning as any residue of the "truth.

The Zapruder film, imbued as it is with fantasy and nostalgia, has also been rescripted in retrospect. For subsequent generations, it has become so synonymous with the assassination that some think it was seen live on television. In the film was first shown on television by assassination researcher Robert Groden and television journalist Geraldo Rivera. Inspired by the image, Ant Farm and T. Uthco, two media art collectives in San Francisco, went to Dallas to reenact the film for a videotape called The Eternal Frame ; see Figure 2. The event they were reenacting, however, was not the assassination so much as the taking of the Zapruder film itself.

Just as the image had been rerun again and again, the artists drove through the plaza again and again. Ant Farm and T. Uthco reiterate the primacy of the image by having artist Doug Hall, as the "artist-president" Kennedy, state in a speech:. Like all presidents in recent years, I am in reality nothing more than another image on your television sets I am in reality only another link in that chain of pictures which makes up the sum total of information accessible to us all as Americans.

Like my elected predecessors, the content of the image I present is no different than the image itself. Because I must function only as an image, I have chosen in my career to begin with the end and to be born in a sense even as I was dying. Uncanny in its presaging of the image politics of the s and s, The Eternal Frame is an attempt to produce a compelling simulacrum of the event. The "frame"--which is, by implication, eternally rerun--is primary here.

Yet in striving for macabre humor, these artists did not anticipate the power of mimetic interpretation and reenactment. Dealey Plaza is a popular tourist destination; people make pilgrimages and now visit the museum on the sixth floor of the book depository building, the point from which Lee Harvey Oswald is said to have fired the fatal shots. Rather than stand in horror, the tourists who witnessed the artists' performance wept, reminisced, and took photographs, apparently under the impression that this was an officially sanctioned event. For them, the reenactment was a conduit to participation, a cathartic reliving of where they had been.

They made comments such as: "I saw all of it on television after it happened"; "It looks so real now"; "I'm glad we were here It was a beautiful enactment. The reenactment of The Eternal Frame had a small audience, and it has since been usurped by Oliver Stone's controversial film JFK , which incorporated the Zapruder film itself. This docudrama contends, among other things, that the Zapruder film is a crucial piece of evidence that the conspirators who killed Kennedy had not counted on, thus accounting for its suppression.

JFK focuses on the real-life efforts of Jim Garrison, a Louisiana district attorney played by Kevin Costner , during the late s to bring someone, anyone, to trial for participation in the alleged assassination plot. Eventually Garrison tried Clay Shaw, a New Orleans businessman, on charges of conspiracy but failed to win a conviction. Mixing documentary footage and reenactment, fact and fictionalization, JFK attempts to establish the existence of a wide conspiracy by debunking many of the facts of the case against Oswald.

The film centers on a group of shady figures in New Orleans with connections to Oswald, the anti-Castro movement, and an underground homosexual community. The focus of the film, however, is Garrison and his fervent belief that the truth of the assassination can be found through the American legal system.

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Stone invented "consolidated" characters and fictional scenes that he contended were "close to the truth," and he spent much of the ensuing debate about the film defending his facts and research. The opening sequence of JFK has Kennedy arriving in Dallas and culminates with the motorcade moving through the streets. Intercutting historical footage with reenacted scenes of the crowd, the film builds to the moment of the shot but defers its image.

As the shots ring out, the screen goes black, and viewers see its aftermath--a flock of birds flying to the sky and fleeting glimpses of the limousine speeding away. It is not until much later, during the climactic courtroom scene, that the Zapruder film is shown--in a new, improved, closeup version. The Shaw trial, which took place in , was the first public screening of the Zapruder film. Thus, JFK reenacts both the withholding of the Zapruder film and its charged emergence as an historical image; the audience waits for the image, the moment of impact, again.

The official reason for the suppression of the Zapruder film was to protect the Kennedy family and, as Life's publisher concluded, to protect the American public from the disturbing moving image. In JFK, Garrison is portrayed as neglecting his family in his obsession with the assassination; it is specifically during the screening of the Zapruder film that he is seen reuniting with his wife and son as they sit and watch. The Zapruder film, of course, depicts the demise of the First Family, and JFK attempts to reinscribe the image of the American family shattered by tragedy.

This convention of the film is underscored by its insistent indictment of homosexuals, for which it has been criticized by Rogin and others. Yet in their criticism of Stone media critics overlooked the power of his role as docudrama-maker. The meanings of the Zapruder film continue to shift each time it is reenacted, and mimesis becomes history. Indeed, the impressionistic style of Stone's film, with its mix of fact, fiction, and docudrama, is precisely what makes it a memory text.


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Like memory, the film combines fantasy with fragments of facts. The Zapruder film has the capacity to replace personal memories of the Kennedy assassination, to become those memories; JFK has the capacity to replace the Zapruder film. All subsequent depictions of the Zapruder film are irrevocably altered by its inscription in JFK.

Like the films of World War II, Stone's docudrama may operate twenty years from now to encapsulate the story of the assassination at the expense of its documentary image. In its transformation from still image to moving image to reenactment, the Zapruder film reveals the phenomenological relationship of the image to history and the role of the docudrama as a site of history-making. Reenactment as a historical strategy long preceded the television and film docudrama through the tradition of historical theater and fiction.

However, the mass-media context of film and television docudrama amplifies the effects of cultural reenactment. Part of what makes the mimesis of reenactment cathartic is the anticipation of the event we know is coming. Our bodies wait for the moment of the shot. Although the Zapruder film is mythologized as a live television image, it filtered into the national consciousness slowly, through still images. The live images of history in the s were the shooting of Oswald and the first steps on the moon, images produced by the rare live television camera.

Television news images in the field were almost exclusively shot on film, and hence subject to delay, until the late s. The television image of the Challenger disaster marked a turning point in the visual recording of American history, a transition from film to television. In contrast to the Zapruder film, a secret image that was restricted from the public eye in its original form, the television images of the Challenger explosion were unanticipated, unedited, and broadcast live see Figure 3.

These images were unyielding and distant yet relentless and voyeuristic. The blurry image of the cloud of smoke of the exploded space shuttle was emphatically a video image, an image of surveillance; viewers also watched Christa McAuliffe's parents and students, live, at the moment they realized that their daughter and teacher had just been blown up.

The capacity of television technology to transmit images instantly via satellite implicates spectators in new ways. With the Challenger explosion, Americans were witness to a high-tech space-exploration spectacle gone awry, a tragedy with roots in the Cold War space race. The image of the explosion was endlessly repeated, the repetition itself forming a kind of reenactment. Voyeuristically watching the parents and students of Christa McAuliffe, Americans were pre-scripted to share their pride and enthusiasm over the fact that an "ordinary" teacher could experience space flight via U.

The mission was even timed to allow President Reagan to interview McAuliffe in space during his State of the Union address.

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As a public relations event, a nationalistic project intended to promote U. In this context, the McAuliffes' moment of realization became a shared national event. They were primary actors in the construction of an American myth about the family's sacrificing for the nation and mourning the loss of a child.