On page 489 of Twenty-Six Seconds (2016) Alexandra Zapruder writes:
“In October 1997, acclaimed author Don DeLillo published Underworld. Across two short scenes in the novel, his characters….visit an art installation in 1974 in which bootleg copies of the Zapruder film are playing in a continuous loops at different speeds on hundreds of TV screens in a New York City apartment. These pages remain as provocative and haunting as anything I’ve read about the film. Unlike the alterationists, who were busy bogging down an understanding of the Zapruder filmi, DeLillo conjured up a scene that suggests the film’s meaning not only in the context of 1974 but in the enduring present.”
“The Kennedy assassination has figured largely in DeLillo’s work, and the film has been an object of fascination for him for decades. He explored the idea of conspiracy and its unexpected, pervasive influences in his novel of the JFK assassination, Libra. He told me that it was while he was working on an article for Rolling Stone about the assassination that he was able to acquire a bootleg copy of the film…
In an interview in the Paris Review in 1993, Adam Begley asked DeLillo to speak about what the film meant to him. Among many other things, he said, “There’s something inevitable about the Zapruder film. It had to happen this way. The moment belongs to the twentieth century, which means it had to be captured on film.”
I didn’t entirely understand what he meant until we talked. He described the twentieth century as the age of film, just as today is the age of the Internet – by the 1960s, cameras had become commonplace and everyone was filming everything. He is right after all, there were twenty-one other photographers on Dealey Plaza that day alone. But I understand that he was talking about something more than just the odds that someone would record the murder. There is kind of a poetic logic, if such a phrase exists, in capturing such a defining moment of the twentieth century on film, which remains the technology most associated with that time. In this, film is distinctly different from videotape or, most relevant today, digital media with its clarity, permanence, perfection, ability to be manipulated and replicated ad infinitum. In contrast 8mm film is tangible and fragile, its images grainy and saturated, paradoxically preserving memory and degrading over time. Everything about it offers tantalizing, nostalgic glimpses of a time that has slipped away.
In Underworld,….as the scene begins, everyone is slightly edgy, anticipating what they will see.
The footage started rolling in one room but not the others and it was filled with slurs and jostles, it was totally jostled footage, a movie shot with Super 8, and the limousine came down the street, muddied by sunlint, and thee head dipped out of the frame and reappeared and then the force of the shot that killed him, unexpectedly, the headshot, and people in the room went ohh, and then the next ohh, and five seconds later, the room at the back went ohh, the same release of breath every time, like blurts of disbelief, and a women seated on the floor spun away and covered her face because it was completely new, you see, suppressed all these years, this was the famous headshot and they had to contend with the impact – aside from the fact that this was the President being shot, past the outer limits of this fact they had to content with the impact that any high-velocity bullet of a certain lethal engineering will make on any human head, and the sheering of tissue and braincase was a terrible revelation.
In our conversation, DeLillo elaborated on how he thought about that scene when he was writing it.
“Of course, the key to the whole thing is that I think the people went to look at it expecting to see some sort of art that they hadn’t seen before,” he said, “and then to see this terrible drama of violence was terrifically shocking, even for highly sophisticated people.”
By the time we reach the climactic end of the scene, the film has played endlessly, looped constantly, in slow motion, close-up at different speeds, to the people coming and going, running inside the different frames of hundreds of television sets. Finally…the story of the film and its meaning transcending any particular time and place, understanding instead of how it preys on our deepest fears of death and enacts our nightmares.
DeLillo: The progress of the car down Elm Street, the movement of the film through the camera body, some sharable darkness – this was a death that seemed to rise from the steamy debris of the deep mind, it came from some night of the mind, there was some trick of film emulsion that showed the ghost of consciousness….the sort of death plot that runs in the mind, because it seemed so familiar, the footage did – it seemed a thing we might see, not see but know, a model of the nights when we are intimate with our own dying.