Testimony of Art Simon

Before the Assassination Records Review Board -- 4/2/97
14 And next, our final witness today is Mr. Art

15 Simon. He is an assistant professor in the Department

16 of English at Montclair State University in New Jersey

17 and he is the author of the book, "Dangerous Knowledge:

18 The JFK Assassination in Art and Film," published in

19 1995.

20 Professor Simon?


22 MR. SIMON: Thank you for the opportunity to


1 address the board today.

2 I want to begin by underscoring a theoretical

3 point, one that Mr. Hall has already just discussed,

4 and that is the footage showed by Abraham Zapruder is

5 not a window onto the past. It is not a reproduction.

6 It is a representation. While it is commonplace to say

7 that film offers us a slice of reality, a window on the

8 world, in fact what Zapruder did was produce a

9 perspective, a perspective on the assassination, one

10 that has become the dominant visual point of view of

11 the event.

12 As a product, and not a window, Zapruder's

13 choices and his reactions, his decision to film in

14 color, to stand in a certain position, to use 8

15 millimeter, to move the camera as he did, these give us

16 a mediated form of vision. These do not give us the

17 truth about what took place 33 years ago. I believe

18 there is really limited evidentiary value left in the

19 Zapruder film. Indeed, although I have not looked at

20 the original in its present form, it may be that if

21 first-generation copies exist in good condition, they

22 may be more useful to those who wish to continue the


1 investigation, or as Mr. Weitzman has suggested, some

2 kind of combination of the original and first-

3 generation copies.

4 Now I understand that one of the arguments

5 for preserving the original print holds on to the

6 possibility that some future optical technology might

7 be employed that allows the original to yield new

8 information. As much as I would like to believe this,

9 and with all due respect to what Mr. Weitzman said, I

10 think this may well be an enabling fiction, a fantasy,

11 a fantasy that motivates further study and fuels a

12 faith that some day historical ambiguities will

13 ultimately be made clear.

14 The film has become a fetishized object,

15 invested with the potential to cover up our lack of

16 reliable answers to many questions. In fact, this

17 faith in future enhancements of the film has been a

18 recurring trope over the last 30 years. And of course,

19 a variety of such processes have been applied to the

20 film. The Zapruder footage has repeatedly been cast in

21 the role of ultimate witness, and investigators on both

22 sides of the debate have invested -- have insisted that


1 with the proper scrutiny its images can render a

2 legible view of the event.

3 Now, while three decades of analysis has

4 produced a significant challenge to initial readings of

5 the film offered by both the government and the

6 mainstream press, it has also produced a mulitiplicity

7 of interpretations, a crisis of knowledge, a serious

8 critique of film's capacity to offer a unified vision

9 and discernible truth. In other words, the application

10 of new technologies has not and probably would not

11 guarantee a unanimity of interpretation.

12 What then is the status of the original film?

13 I would suggest to you that it is a secular relic, a

14 material piece of the past, and for reasons that are

15 either psychological or, for some, perhaps spiritual,

16 individuals and the nation hold on to such relics. I

17 might add parenthetically that we live in a culture

18 which privileges origins, which endows with

19 significance first things, first editions of books,

20 first words spoken by a baby. We have a ceremony for

21 the first pitch of a ball game. We have manufactured

22 that significance through social convention and ritual.


1 In a sense, the government does much the

2 same. Why does the government preserve the original

3 Constitution. We have plenty of copies. We know the

4 contents of the Constitution. Now, while the

5 Constitution was a public document from the beginning,

6 the Zapruder film was not, but still, the nation

7 expends resources to preserve significant objects from

8 the past which have had private origins. People's

9 homes, perhaps Lindberg's plane, the list is very long.

10 Perhaps these objects are maintained for

11 aesthetic reasons because the textures and faded colors

12 bear traces of time and change. Moreover, perhaps

13 preserving such objects functions symbolically as the

14 government's way of saying historical consciousness is

15 important, and that although the past cannot be

16 preserved, some index of it can be located in tangible

17 artifacts which have been kept or rediscovered.

18 The film, then, is some -- is part of some

19 ongoing and perpetual archeology project. Although on

20 the other hand, we might say that old things are just

21 kind of cool, and we hold on to old things for reasons

22 that we really can't explain. I am not sure there is


1 anything wrong with that. And I am not sure there is

2 anything wrong with the government acknowledging that

3 we hold on to objects and artifacts for that reason.

4 I would only add to what has been said

5 already, and that is, if federal funds are going to be

6 spent to keep the original film out of private or

7 corporate hands, as I believe it should, then some

8 mechanism for access needs to be maintained. The

9 criticism that has been directed at the government for

10 the last 30 some years over its handling of the

11 investigation of the assassination must be taken

12 seriously. And so I would just propose that the board

13 consider whether or not the government is the right

14 institution to hold onto the film and consider at least

15 the options of entrusting the film to a museum, a

16 research institution or a university.

17 JUDGE TUNHEIM: Thank you very much,

18 Professor Simon. Are there questions.

19 MS. NELSON: Actually, Mr. Simon, I don't

20 know that -- it belonged to the Zapruder family and so

21 obviously it belongs in the National Archives if it is

22 sitting in the Archives, rather than a museum or


1 private institution. I don't think we could do that

2 under our statute. But, of course, your point that it

3 should be kept is an interesting one. If I understand

4 what you are saying, it is okay to keep secular relics?

5 MR. SIMON: Yes.

6 MS. NELSON: That it might be useful to keep

7 it for that reason?

8 MR. SIMON: For reasons that we might not

9 explain in the course of law so much as it raises

10 questions about psychology of the nation, if such a

11 thing exists.

12 MS. NELSON: You also in your book talk a

13 good bit about its cultural meaning to the society. Is

14 this also something you are intimating when you say

15 that it should be in the public sector because of the

16 failure to put it there for so many years? Is it

17 culturally important?

18 MR. SIMON: I don't know from the standpoint

19 of culture for artists who want to borrow the images

20 and to recontextualize them, to comment on the event,

21 on the last 33 years. I don't know that it is

22 necessary for the government to have the original.


1 Artists can use those images, and have used them and

2 exploited them in various ways. So the original film

3 that ran through Zapruder's camera, I don't know that

4 it is necessary for it to have cultural use in the

5 future.

6 MR. JOYCE: You have quite a turn of phrase,

7 "enabling fiction," and "fetishized objects" and

8 "secularized relic" among them, all of which speak to a

9 certain kind of, in my view, marginalization of the

10 film in the sense of the film as a record, and I am

11 wondering, I certainly agree with you that it is

12 important for government to assist us, the population,

13 in terms of our historical consciousness, but I am

14 wondering if you see in addition to that if we don't in

15 fact have a record here, and if you have any comment to

16 make about the film in its recordness.

17 MR. SIMON: My first comment would be I am

18 not sure that fetishes are marginal. But second, there

19 is no question that it is an important record of the

20 event, and I think those issues have already been

21 addressed. I don't mean to claim that the film has no

22 evidentiary value. It has tremendous evidentiary


1 value. I am not sure that it has much value left, in

2 the sense that I think the conflict over

3 interpretations will continue.

4 We have learned important things about what

5 took place on that day thanks to Zapruder's film. So I

6 don't mean to marginalize it as a piece of evidence or

7 a historical record of the event at all, but only to

8 suggest that even though we have the film text, that

9 doesn't guarantee in any way that we will all agree

10 about what we see in the text, and so as Mr. Hall

11 mentioned earlier, ambiguities will persist, such as

12 the nature of writing history and dealing with evidence

13 from the past.

14 MR. HALL: I can't help reflecting on that.

15 I think of the Rodney King videotape, and there three

16 different juries were able to reach somewhat competing

17 understandings of what that film actually told them.

18 The question, I guess of, some moment in my

19 mind is the extent to which we have an obligation, that

20 is, this generation, has an obligation to make sure

21 that generations that come are put in at least as good

22 a position as we are with regard to coming to terms


1 with whatever evidence is there. And one of the

2 problems I have in this regard is that admitting that

3 there are theories that explain the assassination in

4 terms of the Federal Government as self-participating

5 and, therefore, the last person you would want to give

6 the emulsion fluid to is the wolf. Recognizing that

7 particular line of argument, it does seem to me that

8 the playing field for those who will subsequently come

9 ought to be in such order that those who come to play

10 with this will be in at least as good a position as we

11 are today, which would seem to indicate to me that

12 there ought to be some response that would make sure

13 that as a physical artifact -- and I know you are using

14 the word "relic" in a different way -- but the

15 preservation of that is not just a matter of symbol but

16 also therefore a matter of substance.

17 MR. SIMON: I would agree. I would just

18 reiterate that I am not sure that those future

19 generations will be free of the same kind of

20 interpretive struggle.

21 MR. HALL: If we know anything at all about

22 the writing of history it is that it is hard to find a


1 punctuation mark and that what we may in fact owe

2 future generations is their opportunity to interpret

3 what they will out of the material. If they do not

4 have the material it is hard to interpret it.

5 MR. GRAFF: Professor, I assume you think

6 that rituals and the keeping of artifacts, while they

7 may be fetishistic, some are more fetishistic -- all

8 fetishes are equal but some are more equal than others.

9 And I think that is what we are talking about, and I

10 think that seems to be an element in the response you

11 just gave to Dr. Hall.

12 MS. NELSON: You can see we have been reading

13 too many documents.

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

15 JUDGE TUNHEIM: Any further questions?

16 MR. SIMON: The question you need to decide

17 then is how much the government pays for a fetish and

18 what that might be worth.

19 JUDGE TUNHEIM: Thank you very much,

20 Professor Simon. Let me just, on behalf of the board,

21 thank all of our witnesses here today who provided

22 testimony and opinion and thoughts and good advice to


1 us.

2 The Review Board will be keeping the public

3 record open on this hearing for several weeks, until

4 April 18, so if anyone wishes to address the subject

5 further we would be very happy to receive public

6 comment. It can be sent to the Reviews Board's office

7 at 600 E Street Northwest, Washington, D.C.. The ZIP

8 is 20530. It is the Assassination Records Review

9 Board. I will also note for the record that the board

10 has received thoughtful comments from David Lifton who

11 is an author who is concerned about this issue as well

12 and we have also received a letter which will be part

13 of the public record from an attorney for the Zapruder

14 family.

15 Let me again thank the witnesses today for

16 their testimony. I thought it was very helpful and

17 useful for the board as it debates and considers what

18 the position of the United States should be relative to

19 the camera-original version of this historic Zapruder

20 film. The board is going to take a ten-minute recess

21 and then return for some brief additional testimony and

22 a relatively brief public meeting as well.


1 We will be in recess.

2 (3:20 p.m.)

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