Zapruder Film of the Kennedy Assassination
Abraham Zapruder, 1 min., 8mm, 1963
Preserved by the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza and the National Archives and Records Administration
Added to National Film Registry: 1994
Essay by Art Simon
On the morning of November 22, 1963, Abraham Zapruder was a dress manufacturer in Dallas with a passion for home movie-making. After that tragic day, his name would forever be associated with the assassination of JFK. Indeed, the twenty-six seconds of footage he shot as the President’s limousine turned from Houston onto Elm Street in Dealey Plaza would eventually become perhaps the most widely circulated and closely scrutinized piece of cinema in American history. The first home-movie chosen for the National Film Registry, this fragment of 8mm footage, intended as a personal record of the President’s visit, would become the most public of films, destined to wind its way through every form of American mass culture.
On the morning of the 22nd, Zapruder left his movie camera at home, sure that the crowd awaiting Kennedy would make it difficult to secure a choice vantage point. But a couple hours later he changed his mind, perhaps at the behest of his assistant Lillian Rogers, and so Zapruder had his camera in hand back at the office by 11:30. He took up a spot on a concrete pedestal, got balance support from his secretary Marilyn Sitzman, and recorded in beautiful Kodak color the limousine’s entire run down Elm Street. His framing and slow pan to the right would become the world’s visual perspective on the assassination from that day forward.
Of the many films shot and photographs taken that day by both professionals and amateurs, none captured the event like Zapruder’s. Within an hour of the shooting, local law enforcement, government authorities and the press sought the footage. Three copies were made for the Secret Service but, remarkably, the original was left with Zapruder. He would not have it for long. By the end of the next day, he would sell the rights to Life and so would begin the film’s odyssey: as thirty-one black and white stills in that magazine a week after the assassination; and later color stills in subsequent issues over the next several years; as evidence in the massive Warren Commission Report; and as bootlegged 8mm copies sold to the public and amateur sleuths through ads in the back of counter-culture magazines. It was broadcast for the first time on national television in 1975 on ABC’s Goodnight America and be the centerpiece of Oliver Stone’s JFK in 1991, itself the intertext for a comic bit on Seinfeld. The Zapruder film would serve as a structuring absence in Bruce Conner’s underground masterpiece Report and Andy Warhol’s Since and be parodied by the performance team Ant Farm in its video The Eternal Frame.
For the authors of the Warren Commission Report, the Zapruder footage served as evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone, its precise time frame for the firing of shots confirmation of what others derisively labeled a magic bullet theory. For the growing legion of conspiracy investigators, the film was also an unimpeachable witness, but this time for theories of multiple gunmen. Eventually, Zapruder’s footage simultaneously came to represent a faith in camera vision to record the truth of an event and a crisis over its interpretation. Critics on both sides of the conspiracy debate put their faith in the same 486 frames of film and yet those images hardly produced a uniform understanding of the assassination. A similar faith and crisis would accompany the footage of Rodney King being beaten by members of the LAPD in March 1991 and, for some, footage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. But the Zapruder film remains unique in its public circulation and its place at the center of a struggle over who gets to write history—the government or private citizens who believe the government bungled the assignment. It makes sense, in a way, that this historic piece of film should have been shot by an amateur and not a photographer from within the news industry because it would go on to play such an elusive yet pivotal role during the widespread culture of contestation, the groundswell of protest against institutions of power, that marked the American sixties.
Most home movies are, almost by definition, fragments, scenes from a birthday party or a family vacation. Rarely do they represent a whole story with a discernable plot structure. But the Zapruder film has a wholeness to it, from the moment the camera begins filming as the limousine turns onto Elm Street to its racing out of the frame and onto Parkland Hospital. It contains the passage from excitement to tears, from a presumed national innocence to its sudden loss, from life to death. In that sense, the Zapruder film might be thought of as the nation’s home movie—a single take shot by a proud immigrant punctuated by violence. The Zapruder film came to symbolize the deep gap between the real and the filmed record. Almost since the day it was shot, the 8mm footage has been sold, sequestered, segmented, re-authored, enhanced and restored. For many, it was inaugural text of the postmodern era.
The violence inflicted on the President, and the obsessive scrutiny to which it was subjected, shaped the film into a fetishized object, at times coming close to pornography. And as the national conversation about the assassination migrated to soft-core magazines in the 1970s, the Zapruder film made its appearance in Playboy as well, just ten pages away from the centerfold. It brings to mind the nightmare Abraham Zapruder suffered the night of the assassination, a dream in which his film is being sold in a sleazy Times Square and, in the words of his granddaughter Alexandra’s eloquent personal history of the film, “that he would collude with the media to feed a voyeuristic fascination with the president’s murder.”
Given the film’s ubiquity, now enhanced by the digital age, with multiple versions on YouTube, Zapruder’s nightmare has become reality. On the other hand, the nation’s visual culture has changed so dramatically, a change catalyzed by the Zapruder footage and its public exposure, that the film’s voyeurism seems less illicit than it once did. Still, despite how our contemporary moment is saturated by violent imagery, the Zapruder film still has the power to shock. That power, grounded in its authenticity, is inseparable from its mode of production, its status as home movie.
Art Simon is the author of Dangerous Knowlege: The JFK Assassination in Art and Film.