What Does the Zapruder Film Really Tell Us?

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris deconstructs the most famous 26 seconds in film history

One frame of the Zapruder film has long been considered too graphic for public view. (Zapruder Film © 1967 (Renewed 1995) The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza)
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“Protect a certain stable view of the world? It’s almost as if the brain exploding is like what it does metaphorically to our mind-set, our worldview.”

“It goes to a kind of simpler version of America,” Morris says. “It truly was the end of the ’50s. The end of a certain kind of innocence that we bought into. World War II seemed to provide a notion of good and evil that we could all embrace. We could build a postwar future on that edifice. And this threw everything up for grabs. It’s incredibly sad, still, looking at it today. And it has produced this epi-stemic war of people battling for reality through these images—trying to wrest control back from chaos.”

Morris prefers to think of it in terms of the philosophical issues about the possibility, or impossibility, of knowledge, the issues raised by Tink Thompson in his book about Kierkegaard, The Lonely Labyrinth.

“My favorite quote in my favorite movie review,” he says, “appeared in a 1941 review of Citizen Kane by [the great Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis] Borges and it contained Borges quoting, as he often did, [British writer G.K.] Chesterton, who said there is nothing more frightening than a labyrinth with no center. The loneliest of all labyrinths. The labyrinth to nowhere. Where there is no Minotaur at the center, there’s just winding corridors, more twists and more turns.”

The implication is that all is uncertainty, that we’ll never know who killed Kennedy or why to any degree of certainty. Is it something specific to the JFK case or is it true more generally about knowability? Morris’ new film, after all, about Donald Rumsfeld—famous for his line about “unknown unknowns”—is called The Unknown Known.

“Can we even have the certainty that all is uncertainty?” I ask.

“Here’s my problem,” Morris replies. “My article of faith is that there’s a real world out there in which things happen. The real world is not indeterminate. I don’t want to hear people misinterpreting the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Something happened. The problem is not about the nature of reality. We know somebody killed Kennedy and there’s an answer to the question of who and why.

“Another thing we know is that we may never learn. And we can never know that we can never learn it. We can never know that we can’t know something. This is the detective’s nightmare. It’s the ultimate detective’s nightmare.”


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