Friday, April 29, 2005


Apologies for the non-existence of the blog for some time; in fact, I had become so unfamiliar with it that I used to come back myself and see what I had written. However, the event- an important graduate seminar, was worth it for me.
This is the culmination of a sort of a minor journey for me, and hopefully, the beginning of a long interest in smell and perfumery. I won't belabor the reasons why I got interested in the first place; my review of the book that started me on the path is here. Suffice it to say the seminar was a general success, quite exciting for me, with many questions and speculations from the audience. I hope they enjoyed it too. Now, I feel as if an elephant has been lifted off my shoulders, except that in this case, the elephant also had to carry the weight of a controversial theory...

As an unexpected treat after the seminar, I finally got to watch the much awaited Oliver Stone's JFK, a monstrously convoluted and riveting film, one of the true classics that I am going to encounter for a long time. I was so impressed that I promptly ordered the DVD from Amazon, an impulsive act that I have very rarely submitted to.
JFK is simply awesome. There are no words to describe the meticulousness and detail that Stone weaves into his movies. The whole scenario, the flashbacks, the social and political milieu in the movie has you in such a grip, that by the end you eerily start to feel a part of the movie. In this particular case, the event is so historical and so decisive, that Stone manages to all but put you in the courtroom trial, where the talented Kevin Costner launches into a lenghty exegesis, an absurdly far-flung, but convincingly enacted and extraordinarily soul-searching defense of the 'conspiracy' of JFK's murder. Kevin Costner plays Jim Garrison, the District Attorney of New Orleans, who had brought up the possibility of a conspiracy to kill JFK, repudiating the Warren Commission's report. In the one and only known case where an accused (businessman Clay Shaw) was brought to trial in the JFK assasination, Garrison tried to convince the American public, that the event was too big to have been orchestrated by the lone wolf Lee Harvey Oswald. For doing this, he brought so many characters, details, and events to the table, and argued so passionately about his convictions, that many people were all but convinced, especially if it had been anything close to what it was in the movie, that JFK's assasination was a conspiracy.

The movie is more than three hours long, and this is one of the reasons why it engulfs you completely. During this time, Garrison uncovers a web of conspiracy, ranging from janitors to the President himself- participating in this are a host of bizzare and sordid characters; businessmen, FBI agents, homosexuals, top military and political officials, communists, Castro supporters and almost everyone else who lived in the United States during the Cold War. The most extraordinary thing in the movie- quite typical of Stone's work- is the bizzare cinematography, the disturbing juxtaposition of images from the past and present, in different locations, in black and white and in colour, in different textures and formats, that keeps your attention on every detail that the story offers. This juxtaposition looks like a jigsaw puzzle, which itself is juxtaposed on the puzzle of JFK's assasination. We are a part of the jigsaw puzzle, and we almost get the feeling that we are 'solving' the puzzle with Jim Garrison.

Kevin Costner is outstanding. This role is reminiscent of his role in The Untouchables. He seems to be perfect for such kinds of roles in which he has to play the determined, somewhat naive, charismatic brave underdogger, whose job is to expose the truth with conviction and integrity. Gary Oldman as Oswald is so convincing that you sometimes don't know who is the real Oswald and who is the actor (especially because Stone combines documentary style real footage with fiction). An extended exegesis by Donald Sutherland of how the Pentagon and the White House may have been directly involved is both a little unnerving and perhaps too extreme in its length. Nonetheless the characters, the events, and the details that Garrison uncovers look so interesting, that they begin to sound completely real.

The success of this movie can be gauged from the fact that upon its release, it brought about a public outcry to declassify some of the documents related to JFK's conspiracy. Stone's work and attention to detail are so outstanding that the movie actually resurrected many people's beliefs in a conspiracy. In a bid to put an end to the whole affair, the Government finally released thousands of documents, including technical and forensic reports. Experts were asked to definitively assess the ballistics of the bullet that killed the President. In the end, all this seems to finally put all fears of a conspiracy to rest.
(In fact, I remember; Ex President Jimmy Carter is an honorary professor at Emory and frequently comes to address the students. In one session, a student asked him yet again, quite directly, whether Lyndon Johnson was involved in JFK's assasination. Carter put on a straight face and quite simply explained why he did not believe so)

In the end of course, the doubt about a conspiracy still won't die. The JFK assasination goes much deeper than just the death of a beloved president. It exemplifies our need to believe- the man was so universally admired and he died such an unexpected early death, that just like the death of a close loved one, his death sticks around in the minds and hearts of the American public. This was compounded with a sobering and whirlwind decade that was probably the most remarkable in twentieth century American history, one that was marred by the greatest triumphs of the human spirit as well as its greatest follies, and the loss of innocence engendered by a war that nobody wanted, and finally by the assasination of three men (JFK, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King) who in their own special ways, were champions of freedom. For America, it was a turning point, a watershed that left deep marks of every kind. JFK's assasination, in a way, was just the beginning of this. And people wanted to make sure, even when convinced beyond any kind of rational explanation, that they have left absolutely no stone (no pun intended) unturned.

In the end, as one historian said, it is a matter of psychology. The twentieth century was a century of big causes and their correspondingly big consequences; Hitler and World War 2, the Nazis and the Holocaust, Nixon and Watergate. But in the case of the JFK story, a big event is not balanced supposedly by a correspondingly big cause. People find it hard to believe that someone as important as JFK, who was under the aegis of history itself, could be killed by a small fish such as Oswald. It had GOT to be communist conspiracy; people believed this as if only proving that it was a communist conspiracy would do justice to JFK's death. However, life is always stranger than beliefs, and we yet find it hard to come to terms with the fact that the most grand events can frequently be orchestrated by the most mundane causes. But we have to, sometime...
Stone's movie is surely one of it's kind, and one that I will remember and treasure for a long period of time, in spite of the fact that the plot in it, no matter how fantastic, is simply wrong in the end.


Blogger Chris said...

You might enjoy the essays on JFK in History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past by Robert Brent Toplin & History Goes to the Movies by Roquemore.

One problem with historical films is that they put things in your visual memory that can't be erased by your factual memory.

10:16 AM  

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