The Z-film hurt more than it helped
Kenneth A. Rahn
4 March 2001

    Yeah, I know that this is JFK assassination treason, that the last thing you're supposed to step on is the Z-film. I thought that way, too, until very recently when I was listing the essential pieces of evidence from the assassination and noticed that the Z-film kept coming up in the "inessential" column. No one could have been more surprised by this than me, for I have staunchly advocated the film's indispensability since the day I first became involved with the assassination. But recently I have started to reconsider all the evidence, mostly because I thought it was a necessary intellectual exercise that is not practiced by the field, but partly also because I suspected that a few very interesting things might turn up in the process. I wasn't thinking of the Zapruder film, however. I am frankly caught off guard by this development, and am here thinking out loud in the hope that it can stimulate considered replies. Please view this title more as a provocation than a done deal.
    Let's begin by reviewing some of the ways in which the Z-film has helped us understand the assassination. First and most obvious is the infamous rearward lurch after frame 313. That motion is an obvious response to an obvious shot from the front, no? Of course it is. What could be clearer? I thought so for about a month after I got the laserdisc version of Oliver Stone's JFK and saw the Z-film with my own eyes. And we all know that a shot from the front means two shooters, and two shooters means conspiracy. But then I got nervous about basing such a big decision on a single piece of indirect evidence, even if appeared to be unimpeachable. So one night I watched the film frame by frame, taking advantage of the unusually good freeze-frame function on my laserdisc player, and my neat JFK world started to crumble. I saw that the lurch was the second motion rather than the first, the first being a quick snap forward by the head alone. It was only a couple of frames later that the long rearward lurch began. With that delay and that qualitatively different motion, the lurch was not about to be a mechanical reaction to a shot from the rear. That was the end of my brief life as a conspiracist.
    But wait, you say; there was no quick forward snap at all. It's just an unfortunate blur. That bullet from the rear didn't pop his head forward at all, and don't bother me with faux reasons from faux physics as to why this couldn't possibly be.
    Most students of the assassination don't get this far. They see the head explode, the body lurch backward, and put one and one together and reach the "obvious" two that the shot came from the front. They have been taken in by their eyes and by popular mythology. The big lurch has thoroughly confused the Oliver Stoned generation.
    But what about the body shot? Doesn't the Z-film show us uniquely when the two men were hit? Yeah, right. Everybody is still fighting about this. JFK was clearly hit before he emerged from behind the sign, and he was grasping at his throat for breath—no, he was heading into the Thorburn position—no, he was covering his face in response to the first sound but had not yet been hit—no, JFK was clearly hit at frame 225 or so. What about Governor Connally? He was also hit by that time—no, he was clearly hit at frame 225—no, he was hit, just as he always maintained, somewhere in the 230s. Clear as mud, isn't it?
    Well, then, you can tell when the shot came by finding the blurred frames as Zapruder was jerking in response to the sounds. No, that doesn't work at all. Well, it works but with an entirely different sequence of jerks that the other guy found.
    Look, it's obvious that you can just look at the spectators and watch them react to the shots. When they all turn at once, there was a shot. Or maybe they didn't all turn at once, or maybe they were reacting to something else. Who knows? The Z-film certainly isn't telling.
    Just look at the way Kennedy's head explodes. Don't you see how all the mass flies forward? No, you're blind. Just as much moves backward as forward. And what about the two motorcycle policemen who got hit by so much debris flying backward and to the left with such violence that it could only have come from a shot to the right front? Doesn't that go along with the big lurch? Oh, and let's conveniently forget about the quick forward snap and stop reporting it. Then we won't have to deal with it.
    And while we're at it, don't forget the big one—the Z-film might not even be real, you know. There are all sorts of strange things in it that just might—no, have to be—from governmental tampering right after the fact. The CIA had it that night, you know, and they could do anything, even back then. Come on, don't bring up that silly matter of eating our children.  We know faked evidence when we see it. 
    The point of all the above is very simple—the Z-film hasn't settled anything beyond the fact that the president's head exploded at frame 313. The beat goes on and on, without the parties showing any sign of converging. Whatever that is, it is definitely not progress or enlightenment.
    The situation gets even worse when we summon the courage to ask how much of the "information" from the Z-film we really need to understand the assassination. In other words, in what ways is the film essential? Here are the answers that I have come up with so far. They surprised me at first, but they made sense when I thought about them more.
    (1) Direction of the body hits. The Z-film does not provide this because neither of the men react directionally to the hit. That information comes from the wounds.
    (2) Timing of the hits. Also in great dispute, and probably unnecessary to understanding the hits. The key evidence is the number of wounds, their location in the bodies, and the chemistry and ballistics of the lead fragments recovered. My analysis to date suggests strongly that we don't have to know exactly when they were hit or even their exact positions. We need to know only those factors already mentioned. We most definitely do not need to know that there was a maximum of 1.6 seconds between hits, versus the 2.3 needed to reload and fire, in order to come up with the single-bullet theory.
    (3) Timing of the head hit. We don't need to know this because the NAA and the ballistics prove that it came from Oswald's rifle to the exclusion of all other rifles.
    (4) The Tague shot. The Tague shot is best clarified by starting from the NAA of the fragments, as explained in "Neutron-activation Analysis and the JFK Assassination." Although it helps to know that Tague lines up with Kennedy and the shooter at the instant of the head shot, from which the lead fragment presumably came that hit the curb, such knowledge is supportive rather than probative.
    So what then has the Z-film done for us? Objectively considered, it didn't provide much new information, and it muddied nearly every item it touched. Nothing it offered was not provided by some other independent line of reasoning. But through Stone's JFK, it did bring in a whole new generation of researchers, although it confused them so much in the process that few have recovered. It also gave us a false sense of security, and it took our minds off the real evidence. The sense of security came from the visual images, which in this age of film and television reinforced our growing need, especially among the younger generation, to experience things visually. Images 'R Us! The Z-film shouted at us that we needed only to look and see the truth directly in front of us. That bred a superficial approach that proved to be a very bad thing. Not the least of its consequences was the nation of moviegoers who left the theater carrying the chant of "Back and to the left, back and to the left…" in their heads. Unfortunately, the chant and the image took their eyes off the real evidence, the critical lines of reasoning that, when constructed properly, connect the wounds and fragments to the shooter's rifle with a solidity that allows all intervening steps to be bypassed. The Zapruder film is one of those bypassable steps. In short, the Z-film allowed us to comfortably remain the superficial thinkers that we have become.
    I do not issue this essay lightly. I know it is pure heterodoxy, and that many will dismiss it out of hand. But I also know that any field of "research" that is unwilling to occasionally reconsider its underpinnings is no longer worthy of the title. Let us address these issues carefully and dispassionately.

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