Testimony of Art Simon, 2 April 1997

And next, our final witness today is Mr. Art Simon. He is an assistant professor in the Department of English at Montclair State University in New Jersey and he is the author of the book, "Dangerous Knowledge: The JFK Assassination in Art and Film," published in 1995. Professor Simon?


MR. SIMON: Thank you for the opportunity to address the board today.I want to begin by underscoring a theoretical point, one that Mr. Hall has already just discussed, and that is the footage showed by Abraham Zapruder is not a window onto the past. It is not a reproduction. It is a representation. While it is commonplace to say that film offers us a slice of reality, a window on the world, in fact what Zapruder did was produce a perspective, a perspective on the assassination, one that has become the dominant visual point of view of the event.
    As a product, and not a window, Zapruder's choices and his reactions, his decision to film in color, to stand in a certain position, to use 8 millimeter, to move the camera as he did, these give us a mediated form of vision. These do not give us the truth about what took place 33 years ago. I believe there is really limited evidentiary value left in the Zapruder film. Indeed, although I have not looked at the original in its present form, it may be that if first-generation copies exist in good condition, they may be more useful to those who wish to continue the investigation, or as Mr. Weitzman has suggested, some kind of combination of the original and first- generation copies.
    Now I understand that one of the arguments for preserving the original print holds on to the possibility that some future optical technology might be employed that allows the original to yield new information. As much as I would like to believe this, and with all due respect to what Mr. Weitzman said, I think this may well be an enabling fiction, a fantasy, a fantasy that motivates further study and fuels a faith that some day historical ambiguities will ultimately be made clear.
    The film has become a fetishized object, invested with the potential to cover up our lack of reliable answers to many questions. In fact, this faith in future enhancements of the film has been a recurring trope over the last 30 years. And of course, a variety of such processes have been applied to the film. The Zapruder footage has repeatedly been cast in the role of ultimate witness, and investigators on both sides of the debate have invested—have insisted that with the proper scrutiny its images can render a legible view of the event.
    Now, while three decades of analysis has produced a significant challenge to initial readings of the film offered by both the government and the mainstream press, it has also produced a mulitiplicity of interpretations, a crisis of knowledge, a serious critique of film's capacity to offer a unified vision and discernible truth. In other words, the application of new technologies has not and probably would not guarantee a unanimity of interpretation.
    What then is the status of the original film? I would suggest to you that it is a secular relic, a material piece of the past, and for reasons that are either psychological or, for some, perhaps spiritual, individuals and the nation hold on to such relics. I might add parenthetically that we live in a culture which privileges origins, which endows with significance first things, first editions of books, first words spoken by a baby. We have a ceremony for the first pitch of a ball game. We have manufactured that significance through social convention and ritual.
    In a sense, the government does much the same. Why does the government preserve the original Constitution. We have plenty of copies. We know the contents of the Constitution. Now, while the Constitution was a public document from the beginning, the Zapruder film was not, but still, the nation expends resources to preserve significant objects from the past which have had private origins. People's homes, perhaps Lindberg's plane, the list is very long.
    Perhaps these objects are maintained for aesthetic reasons because the textures and faded colors bear traces of time and change. Moreover, perhaps preserving such objects functions symbolically as the government's way of saying historical consciousness is important, and that although the past cannot be preserved, some index of it can be located in tangible artifacts which have been kept or rediscovered.
    The film, then, is some—is part of some ongoing and perpetual archeology project. Although on the other hand, we might say that old things are just kind of cool, and we hold on to old things for reasons that we really can't explain. I am not sure there is anything wrong with that. And I am not sure there is anything wrong with the government acknowledging that we hold on to objects and artifacts for that reason.
    I would only add to what has been said already, and that is, if federal funds are going to be spent to keep the original film out of private or corporate hands, as I believe it should, then some mechanism for access needs to be maintained. The criticism that has been directed at the government for the last 30 some years over its handling of the investigation of the assassination must be taken seriously. And so I would just propose that the board consider whether or not the government is the right institution to hold onto the film and consider at least the options of entrusting the film to a museum, a research institution or a university.

JUDGE TUNHEIM: Thank you very much, Professor Simon. Are there questions.

MS. NELSON: Actually, Mr. Simon, I don't know that—it belonged to the Zapruder family and so obviously it belongs in the National Archives if it is sitting in the Archives, rather than a museum or private institution. I don't think we could do that under our statute. But, of course, your point that it should be kept is an interesting one. If I understand what you are saying, it is okay to keep secular relics?


MS. NELSON: That it might be useful to keep  it for that reason?

MR. SIMON: For reasons that we might not explain in the course of law so much as it raises questions about psychology of the nation, if such a thing exists.

MS. NELSON: You also in your book talk a good bit about its cultural meaning to the society. Is this also something you are intimating when you say that it should be in the public sector because of the failure to put it there for so many years? Is it culturally important?

MR. SIMON: I don't know from the standpoint of culture for artists who want to borrow the images and to recontextualize them, to comment on the event, on the last 33 years. I don't know that it is necessary for the government to have the original. Artists can use those images, and have used them and exploited them in various ways. So the original film that ran through Zapruder's camera, I don't know that it is necessary for it to have cultural use in the future.

MR. JOYCE: You have quite a turn of phrase, "enabling fiction," and "fetishized objects" and "secularized relic" among them, all of which speak to a certain kind of, in my view, marginalization of the film in the sense of the film as a record, and I am wondering, I certainly agree with you that it is important for government to assist us, the population, in terms of our historical consciousness, but I am wondering if you see in addition to that if we don't in fact have a record here, and if you have any comment to make about the film in its recordness.

MR. SIMON: My first comment would be I am not sure that fetishes are marginal. But second, there is no question that it is an important record of the event, and I think those issues have already been addressed. I don't mean to claim that the film has no evidentiary value. It has tremendous evidentiary value. I am not sure that it has much value left, in the sense that I think the conflict over interpretations will continue.
    We have learned important things about what took place on that day thanks to Zapruder's film. So I don't mean to marginalize it as a piece of evidence or a historical record of the event at all, but only to suggest that even though we have the film text, that doesn't guarantee in any way that we will all agree about what we see in the text, and so as Mr. Hall mentioned earlier, ambiguities will persist, such as the nature of writing history and dealing with evidence from the past.

MR. HALL: I can't help reflecting on that. I think of the Rodney King videotape, and there three different juries were able to reach somewhat competing understandings of what that film actually told them.
    The question, I guess of, some moment in my mind is the extent to which we have an obligation, that is, this generation, has an obligation to make sure that generations that come are put in at least as good a position as we are with regard to coming to terms with whatever evidence is there. And one of the problems I have in this regard is that admitting that there are theories that explain the assassination in terms of the Federal Government as self-participating and, therefore, the last person you would want to give the emulsion fluid to is the wolf. Recognizing that particular line of argument, it does seem to me that the playing field for those who will subsequently come ought to be in such order that those who come to play with this will be in at least as good a position as we are today, which would seem to indicate to me that there ought to be some response that would make sure that as a physical artifact—and I know you are using the word "relic" in a different way—but the preservation of that is not just a matter of symbol but also therefore a matter of substance.

MR. SIMON: I would agree. I would just reiterate that I am not sure that those future generations will be free of the same kind of interpretive struggle.

MR. HALL: If we know anything at all about the writing of history it is that it is hard to find a punctuation mark and that what we may in fact owe future generations is their opportunity to interpret what they will out of the material. If they do not have the material it is hard to interpret it.

MR. GRAFF: Professor, I assume you think that rituals and the keeping of artifacts, while they may be fetishistic, some are more fetishistic—all fetishes are equal but some are more equal than others. And I think that is what we are talking about, and I think that seems to be an element in the response you just gave to Dr. Hall.

MS. NELSON: You can see we have been reading too many documents.

MR. GRAFF: We have been reading you, too.

JUDGE TUNHEIM: Any further questions?

MR. SIMON: The question you need to decide then is how much the government pays for a fetish and what that might be worth.

JUDGE TUNHEIM: Thank you very much, Professor Simon. Let me just, on behalf of the board, thank all of our witnesses here today who provided testimony and opinion and thoughts and good advice to us.
    The Review Board will be keeping the public record open on this hearing for several weeks, until April 18, so if anyone wishes to address the subject further we would be very happy to receive public comment. It can be sent to the Reviews Board's office at 600 E Street Northwest, Washington, D.C.. The ZIP is 20530. It is the Assassination Records Review Board. I will also note for the record that the board has received thoughtful comments from David Lifton who is an author who is concerned about this issue as well and we have also received a letter which will be part of the public record from an attorney for the Zapruder family.
    Let me again thank the witnesses today for their testimony. I thought it was very helpful and useful for the board as it debates and considers what the position of the United States should be relative to the camera-original version of this historic Zapruder film. The board is going to take a ten-minute recess and then return for some brief additional testimony and a relatively brief public meeting as well.

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