By David D'Arcy
It's hard to think of a subject that can be more tedious or infuriating than the Kennedy assassination. Just try sitting through one of the lectures by a self-styled "expert" who talks ad nauseam about the Zapruder film or the conspiracies that he believes to be at the root of the killing. You can call them "theories" in the same way that you can call political campaign brochures "literature."
Oliver Stone - meet Robert Stone. Oswald's Ghost [official site], Robert Stone's new documentary, does not put the subject to rest. How could it? Some 70 percent of Americans believe that the murder of JFK was a conspiracy, and that Lee Harvey Oswald couldn't possibly have killed Kennedy by himself. In a way, that might be reassuring, in that it indicates that 70 percent of Americans actually know who JFK was. Fewer Americans know where Iraq is.
Although I'm a fan of Robert Stone's work - especially his hallucinatory doc, Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, about the delusional Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) "revolutionaries" who kidnapped Patricia Hearst in 1974 - I was skeptical at first, not about the notion of a film that might put conspiratorial explanations of the JFK assassination to rest, but about the idea that there was anything left to be said about the shooting of JFK and the search for a "mastermind."
I can recommend Oswald's Ghost to skeptics like myself, and to anyone else. Stone doesn't say that there wasn't a conspiracy. (Note that this is one of those subjects that is awash in double negatives.) Yet his documentary does show that, after more than 40 years, no evidence shows conclusively that the 24-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald acted in collusion with anyone else to shoot John F. Kennedy from a sixth floor window of the Texas Schoolbook Depository when the presidential motorcade passed through Dallas on November 22, 1963.
Despite charges that the murder was the work of a plot concocted by the FBI, CIA, KGB, Cuban agents, the Mafia, rogue elements, or, as the Left likes to spin it, by military generals who were angry that Kennedy was planning to pull out of Vietnam, the proof has never surfaced. To put it in the appropriate double negative, it's not that no one's been looking.
Lack of proof of a conspiracy hasn't kept people from distrusting the evidence that does exist which implicates Oswald as the sole killer. Stone surveys that evidence and the innumerable analyses of it in a dazzling compilation of archival imagery and in dozens of interviews. The central and most persuasive interview is with the late Norman Mailer, author of Oswald's Tale, who died on November 10.
After the fall of communism, Mailer spent two years in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where Oswald lived in 1960 and 1961 when the city was the capital of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. Mailer goes back several generations to study the family of Marina Prusakova, the pretty local girl whom Oswald married. Then, as now, attaching yourself to a foreigner lifts you above the accidental curse of birth in a place like Minsk. Mailer and his collaborator, Lawrence Schiller, had access to the files of he KGB, which kept a close eye on Oswald and bugged the couple's home. (Marina's father was a low-level local intelligence officer.)
After years with documents and interviews about Oswald's life in the USSR and the US, Mailer concluded that Oswald was not the cipher portrayed by the media at the time of the Kennedy killing. Nor was he the "patsy" that Oswald called himself after killing Kennedy and, subsequently, shooting a cop fatally before he was found in the Texas Theater nearby. Here, Mailer maintains, was a man intelligent and rational enough to have planned and carried out the murder of the President of the United States. Mailer also argues that Oswald was delusional and vain enough to believe that his actions would have world-historical significance. Oswald was as correct about his pivotal role in history as the conspiratorialists have been wrong about a plot at the origins of the killings.
There is plenty of the garrulous Mailer in Oswald's Ghost, and there's a sad timeliness to hearing his persuasive observations. Yet Stone also gives the conspiracy arguments their due - from the numerological ravings of Jim Garrison (and later, Oliver Stone), to the reasoned hypotheses of the former philosophy professor Josiah Thompson, to Tom Hayden's stated view that the killing was a plot to block the natural evolution toward a "progressive" America.
Parallels to 9/11 are all over this film. The FBI knew about Oswald, as it knew about some of the 9/11 highjackers, and in neither case was action taken. Predictably, the FBI made excuses when the suspects' histories came to light and pointed to the likelihood of a broader conspiracy. Bear in mind that Americans in astonishing numbers still believe that the 9/11 attacks were a conspiracy orchestrated by Saddam Hussein, a "theory" that the Bush White House has done a lot to encourage and almost nothing to dispel.
In Oswald's Ghost, as in Guerrilla, a central subject for Robert Stone is credulity, not just among the public that seeks and believes conspiratoirial explanations, but among the killers themselves, who believed that they would shape the course of human history. Oswald, sadly, was right.
If the SLA "commandos" were, literally, the gang that couldn't shoot straight in Guerrilla, law enforcement agents at the time of the JFK shooting were laughably incompetent from top to bottom. These were the policemen who couldn't protect their suspect in the police station. And it was the much-maligned Warren Commission, spearheaded by junior counsel Arlen Spector (the man who later brought us Clarence Thomas, now the self-depicted victim of a liberal media conspiracy), which concocted the zany and implausible single bullet theory that held that one bullet passed through everyone in the presidential limousine who was wounded. It was a whacky theory created to reach an accurate conclusion, that Oswald acted alone. One of many revelatory archival recordings in the film showed that Lyndon Johnson had trouble with that "theory."
As for Mailer, for all his loquacity and self-confidence (the chattering classes seem stuck on reminding us of Mailer's uncontainable ego and little else), the writer is honest enough to acknowledge the limits of what we can know about another person, like Lee Harvey Oswald, or about the JFK assassination, or about mysterious crimes for which there is no evidence, at least not yet. Hence Stone's title, Oswald's Ghost. On October 18, the New York Times recalled Mailer's honesty and bravado in a remark that he made during his quixotic campaign for mayor of New York City in 1969. A few years before, Mayor John Lindsay took more than a week to clear snow from the streets of Queens, which made him enemies among the borough's voters, who tended to be middle- and working-class white families then. Asked how he would remove the snow, Mailer said he would personally urinate on it, like Gulliver putting out a fire in Lilliput, melting it away. He was kidding - he knew his limits - but those who thought they knew Mailer believed he meant it. Some people will believe anything.
How did Norman Mailer fit into the mix when you were beginning to think about the film, or did he?
From the very beginning, I thought that Mailer was the key to making this film work. I didn't want to do the film without him. I thought Oswald's Tale was a masterpiece. He's one of the few people whose life was intertwined with believing there was a conspiracy. It informed his world view, which was a world view that he elaborated on, and was very vocal about throughout the 60s and 70s. When he actually spent years digging into the life of Lee Harvey Oswald, he did a 180. There are very few people who have the intellectual honesty to do that, and he's one of the few. So I thought that if you were going to take the audience on a journey from point A to point B, Mailer's trajectory is the one to follow.
Right from Day One, we wanted him in the film, but it was a huge struggle to get him. It was almost like getting an appointment with the Pope.
What was so difficult about it?
Like anybody of that stature, he's got a whole army of people around him to protect him from anyone who might want to contact him, which is everybody. He was very busy, his health was declining, he was finishing a book, and he's a very disciplined writer. His priority was finishing his book before he died. He was aware that he only had a limited time left, and he wanted to write it. Sitting down to do an interview with me was not a priority item. It took eight months, I think, for me to get an hour with him.
Had you been aware of Oswald's Tale before?
I read it when it came out. It was a major inspiration for making the film.
What did Oswald's Tale do for understanding the assassination that hadn't been out there before?
Mailer's great achievement with the book is fleshing out Oswald as a character who's so absolutely fascinating. [Mailer did a long interview with Brian Lamb of C-Span at the time of the book's publication.]
He rises to the level of someone who could commit a crime of that magnitude. I think that's always been one of the problems for people in getting their head around the fact that Oswald did this, or thinking about the idea that Oswald could have done it. It doesn't seem that he was a criminal of the stature to fit the crime, that he was just a guy who popped out of nowhere - as Mailer said in the film, a guy who didn't have much going for him. It's been very difficult for people to think that this "little weasel" could have changed the course of history...
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