PRINT January 2004


Shooting Kennedy

IN LATE 1960, a young artist named James Rosenquist juxtaposed a head shot lifted from a campaign poster with shards from glossy magazine ads for a packaged cake mix and a 1949 Chevy. Equating voters with consumers, Rosenquist called his painting President Elect. Thus, John F. Kennedy entered the White House already an object of marketable fantasy, America’s new First Trademark and icon-in-chief.

Art historian David M. Lubin’s Shooting Kennedy vastly elaborates the Rosenquist technique, allowing JFK—and consort Jacqueline—to hobnob with a promiscuous assortment of fellow images. Lubin locates photographs of the Kennedys and the Kennedy assassination among the movies and cultural artifacts of the 1950s and ’60s, further placing these images in the context of a visual culture reaching back to classical antiquity. Given the centrality of the JFK myth to America’s national narrative, the grandeur of this enterprise is evident—and so are the delusions.

At once stodgy and delirious, unexpectedly brilliant and brilliantly spurious, appropriately world historical and facetiously ahistoric, Shooting Kennedy is a book that, Lubin suggests, advances its own conspiracy theory by elaborating “an endless series of previously unnoticed” connections. (“Unnoticed” is an elastic term: The author does not shy from stating the obvious, which leads one to assume, for example, he is unaware that Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup [1966] was instantly and widely understood as a gloss on the Zapruder film.) The key excavation is Lubin’s discovery that one eyewitness described the post-assassination chaos at Dealey Plaza as an “explosion in a shingle factory”—the very phrase employed by an American critic of the 1913 Armory show to characterize Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. If Kennedy is dead, all is permitted. Let the free associations begin.

The imaginary image of sniper Lee Harvey Oswald framed in the sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository hypothetically “reminds” Lubin of an Edward Hopper isolato. Two pages on, he imagines that, for the American people, Oswald has merged with Psycho killer Norman Bates. Piling allusion on enigma, Lubin compares the famous, contested (self-?) portrait of the putative assassin brandishing his rifle with Daniel French’s statue of the heroic Minute Man and compares Oswald’s death agony grimace to the screaming horse at the center of Guernica. For his part, JFK contains multitudes: Not just Agent 007 but the movie representations of Tom Jones and T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia); Kennedy isn’t simply the first political Elvis—he’s also a real-life Dean Moriarty (thus enabling the humorous chapter title “Hit the Road, Jack”) and Andy Warhol with better hair.

Jacqueline Kennedy—amusingly cast by Lubin to play Ethel Rosenberg to Jack’s Julius, as well as Agrippina to his slain Germanicus and the better half of Grant Wood’s American Gothic—was an icon in her own right. Lubin notes that she was featured on the cover of Life magazine eighteen times, more than anyone else save her husband. The first First Lady to have her own press secretary, she was also an astute imagemaker. (Thanks to the post-assassination interview she granted Theodore H. White, her husband’s reign came to be named after a Broadway musical.) Gore Vidal has maintained that Jacqueline dreamed of being a movie star, and Lubin’s most convincingly outrageous chapter credits her with staging her husband’s funeral as a Happening.

Lubin’s mordant appreciation for the photographic unconscious is often diluted by his lofty tone. Still, he’s best when taking the imperial perspective: The presidential death car is “big as a barge, lumbering down Main Street USA with Jack seated in its commodious rear as if in a Roman bath.” Extending the tub image, Lubin compares Kennedy’s death in that big backseat to David’s Death of Marat. Then it’s off into a riff on Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, which, he notes, was written six months after JFK visited Berlin and, rather than The Death of Marat, is the real soul mate to the Zapruder film. More endearing, if scarcely less persuasive, is the deflationary comparison of the Kennedys and Texas governor John Connolly and his wife riding through Dallas in the Lincoln Continental X-100 to the Beverly Hillbillies making their jalopy entry into Southern California’s Lotusland.

Lubin is having fun because, in a certain sense, the assassination was fun. On the afternoon of Friday, November 22, 1963, the national narrative ruptured, and, in the three days that followed, America experienced itself viscerally as a collective entity—the “Utopian glimpse into some collective communicational ‘festival,’” per Fredric Jameson. For some, history went back on track on March 30, 1981, when Ronald Reagan took the bullet and lived; for others, it never has. No matter Shooting Kennedy’s excesses, however, nothing in it packs the surreal wallop of one terse sentence in historian David R. Wrone’s new book-length analysis The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK’s Assassination: “The evidence on frames 337 and 338 of the Zapruder film [showing Kennedy hit first from the front] could alter the course of American history.”

Why not the nature of our universe? Did photography’s indexical relationship to the real die alongside JFK? For Lubin, the Zapruder film is a “crucial cinematic text of the twentieth century,” albeit “less a Rosetta stone than an illustration of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.” Interrogated under the klieg light of history, this strip of film isn’t so much a revelation of truth as the breakdown of representation—and so too Shooting Kennedy.

J. Hoberman is senior film critic at the Village Voice.


David M. Lubin, Shooting Kennedy: JFK and the Culture of Images (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press), 342 pages.