Monday, October 15, 2007

Vassar professor reviews 'Oswald's Ghost'

Mia Mask, a film professor at Vassar College, attended a sold-out screening of Rhinecliff-based documentary director Robert Stone’s “Oswald’s Ghost” Friday evening at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck. Here is her review:

Among the documentaries premiering at the 8th annual Woodstock Film Festival was Robert Stone’s “Oswald’s Ghost,” a clear-cut approach to the otherwise dizzying morass of conspiracy theories and forensic contradictions circulating around the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963.

To evoke the zeitgeist of the sixties and recreate the feeling of loss, chaos and disbelief that followed the assassination, the director utilized a familiar catalogue of images, evidence and filmed material.

With editor Don Kleszy, Stone assembled well-preserved archival footage, excerpts of Abraham Zapruder’s film — played in super slow motion — and still photographs of haunting figures Jack Ruby and the eponymous gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald.

The images are sutured together by interviews with historians and assassination chroniclers Edward Jay Epstein, Mark Lane, Norman Mailer, former Sen. Gary Hart and anchorman Dan Rather — among others — who carefully recount the narrative of that fateful day in Dallas.

The resulting film is a professionally rendered, carefully paced documentary that’s slick enough for theatrical release but provides little new information or inspiration, which might lead moviegoers to ask: Why this film now?

In his introduction to the festival screening, Stone said he wanted to make “Oswald’s Ghost” for more than a decade, ever since he saw Oliver Stone’s “JFK.”

“I was interested in the debates and discussions it inspired,” Robert Stone said.

If he has any agenda, it’s to debunk conspiracy theories in general, something he clearly considers debilitating to progressive, leftist politics.

In the post-screening Q & A he compared the proliferation of theories around JFK’s assassination to the new crop of plots and schemes concocted to explain Sept. 11, 2001.

“The problem is: There’s no basic set of facts,” Stone said. “There’s no basic set of facts you can have a discussion about. There’s a whole cottage industry that says the Zapruder film is a fake. I didn’t want to fall into the rabbit hole of these debates. It’s been a rabbit hole for the left to pursue conspiracy theories that make people feel powerless. It only enables the powerful. The assassination of JFK was the 9/11 of our generation.”

If that’s true, then one wants “Oswald’s Ghost” to make that point.

The film’s public television, documentary-by-numbers formula works. But in trying to moderate two sides of the assassination debate, it fails to provide anything other than the sensible conclusions already surmised.

To Stone’s credit, there are archival and authorial flourishes viewers won’t find elsewhere. Chief among them are the police radio tapes and CBS’ 16mm coverage, neither of which had ever been used in any accounts of the tragedy.

There’s also a humorous moment of cinematic reflexivity when Robert Stone’s “Oswald’s Ghost” pokes fun at Oliver Stone’s “JFK.”

Just when the myriad of competing explanations starts to overwhelm, the documentary cuts to a 1991 interview with Oliver Stone on the set.

"Oswald's Ghost" mocks its predecessor as the mainstream film that managed to “…make use of all the theories.” The message seems clear: Hokey Hollywood films manufacture order out of complexity and chaos.

If the two films have anything in common, it’s that they both raise epistemological questions about cinema’s relationship to historical memory and the persistence of that memory.

Indeed, the killings of John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X were stumbling blocks to the rise of a progressive majority — as one Woodstock audience member noted.

The orbit of unknowns has proved an epistemological quagmire.

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