Виктор Шендерович
Prose writer, poet, playwright
Liberal Arts
5 minutes for reading

IN THE CINEMA OF HISTORY: “Political drama has become a human story that somehow touches everyone”, Viktor Shenderovich

IN THE CINEMA OF HISTORY: "Political drama has become a human story that somehow touches everyone", Viktor Shenderovich
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Photo: John and Jacqueline Kennedy. 1963. Photo from the collector’s edition of Viktor Shenderovich’s project “Lec. XX century”

 

On November 22, 1963, 35th US President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. “He looked far ahead and wanted to change a lot,” wrote the former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev about Kennedy in his book In a Changing World.

On July 12, 2021, at the Cannes Film Festival, the premiere of a new documentary series directed by Oliver Stone JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass took place. Based on the declassified material, the director attempts to shed more light on what really happened in 1963.

Officially, Kennedy died at the hands of a lone assassin, but most Americans still believe that the US president fell victim to a conspiracy.

On the anniversary of the death of Kennedy, Viktor Shenderovich reflects on how “a political drama became a human story that somehow touches everyone”.

 

There was nothing special in this photo – the daily work of the presidential pool, reporters’ turnover, even the author is unknown… The President of the United States climbs the ladder to fly to the next state, in preparation for the new election campaign. The beautiful wife (the crackle of a dozen photo shutters) is demonstratively waving to the children from the gangway…

The usual staged story. One of the hundreds of photographs of the presidential couple, which should have happened many hundreds more… But sometimes time thickens, and we remain in it forever, like an insect in amber.

The date it was taken, November 21, 1963, made this photograph famous. And the final destination of the presidential plane: through San Antonio and Houston – to Dallas… The assassination of John F. Kennedy turned out to be such a poignant plot that it could not remain within the official interpretation, whatever it may be.

The shots in Dallas detonated the whole world and were doomed to be overgrown with versions. These versions continue their life in books and films half a century after the spite of that political day subsided and forgotten…

 

IN THE CINEMA OF HISTORY: "Political drama has become a human story that somehow touches everyone", Viktor Shenderovich
President John F. Kennedy riding in a motorcade about a minute before he was shot in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Jim Altgens (AP) / axios.com

 

So I, being in Dallas, found the book depository building on Elm Street and followed Lee Oswald up to the sixth floor, tried to imagine what it was like.

I tried to guess if the route of the motorcade was accidentally published in the newspapers… And – was it accidentally changed so that the president’s limousine would brake on a hill before the turn, at the ideal point for execution? I found, forever rewound with tapes of non-existent repairs, the place from which the mythical second shooter allegedly shot…

Isn’t it strange? What does it matter to me? What is Hecuba to me? And who will now even remember the reasons for that hatred of Kennedy? Who, besides the Americanists, will explain why the spears between the Republicans and the Democrats were breaking that year? Who can tell the difference between Nixon and Johnson?

And everyone remembers Kennedy.

Perhaps the key to this phenomenon is a new door to publicity, suddenly opened by technological progress, just in the face of the 35th President of the United States. Someone joked that if there was television during Stalin’s time, there would be no television.

Yes, of course: Stalin would not have allowed the Soviet people to see himself as his inner circle of “thin-necked leaders” saw him. The little pockmarked paranoid knew the matter: only ceremonial portraits, only faces on banners and airships…

 

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And it was television that made John F. Kennedy president: the first television debate in US history happened in 1960 and became a decisive argument in favor of the young democrat. His personal, human charm, against the background of the modest in this sense capabilities of his rival, Richard Nixon, decided the matter (and the gap was quite small).

The assassination of John F. Kennedy also happened – not television, of course, but absolutely public. And immediately went beyond the political history of the United States.

Not only the USA, by the way. I distinctly remember myself, a five-year-old, and my father, catching “enemy” waves from a husky radio that night. It was clear to him and for some reason even to me that something very important had happened for us too. What exactly? Politics? Oh sure. The Cuban missile crisis, peace in the balance, and “Eisenhower is sick with war”, as the hero of Armor sang in “Pokrovskie gates”…

But on top of all this, a personal, human moment immediately appeared in what happened. Kennedy – sorry. The political drama suddenly became a human story that somehow touches everyone. Everyone, in general.

 

IN THE CINEMA OF HISTORY: "Political drama has become a human story that somehow touches everyone", Viktor Shenderovich
Secret Service agent Clint Hill stands on the rear bumper of JFK’s car as Jackie bends over her husband moments after he was shot as they drove through Dallas, Texas / dailymail.co.uk

 

The phenomenon of personal charm? Oh, sure. The figure of Jacqueline? Yes, and she too (do you remember a lot by the name of the first ladies after half a century? That’s just it). But still, the point is probably also in that changed optics. Everything suddenly became much closer.

The assassination of President Lincoln, which had much more important historical consequences, remained a couple of lines in the textbook, the name of the actor Booth and the tourist route to the Ford Theater in Washington. Several drawings on this topic only exacerbate the memorial perception of the plot.

A 26-second video clip of Abraham Zapruder, a lucky filmmaker who captured the moment of the Kennedy assassination, was bought by Life magazine a few days after the tragedy for incredible money at that time, 150 thousand dollars. There was no Internet yet, and the magazine published the film – frame by frame!

America suddenly found itself in the cinema, where this inevitable and notoriously cult documentary was shown. In a way, it’s still in this theater with us. Still trying to see something on this old tape – and guess the truth. Or compose it?

The legend lives by its own laws, magnetizing the space around it. It is more than the sum of names and circumstances, it is above politics.

That is why we, habitually gazing at the mass murders with which the news feeds are overwhelmed, look with such excitement at an old photograph of John F. Kennedy climbing the ladder after Jacqueline to fly towards Dallas…

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