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Saturday, July 21, 2018

July 21-22, 2018: KennedyStudying: Historical Films


[On July 18th, 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy was involved in a car accident that left his female companion Mary Jo Kopechne dead. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied that Chappaquiddick incident and four other Kennedy family histories, leading up to this weekend post on film representations of the family!]
On three Kennedy-inspired movies that offer three distinct visions of history in film.
1)      Thirteen Days (2001): Thirteen Days is by far the most typical historical film of these three, a documentary-style drama (based on Ernest May and Philip Zelikow’s 1997 book The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis) set during the height of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Yet even within that nonfiction origin text, and with at least some of the story’s figures still alive during filmmaking, no historical drama is a documentary or a work of nonfiction. John and Robert Kennedy are (like every figure in the film) played by Hollywood actors (Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp respectively), and the film is headlined by a major Hollywood star (Kevin Costner) playing a relatively minor figure (consultant Kenneth O’Donnell) elevated to a central role for obvious reasons. Those are the requirements of Hollywood historical filmmaking—they don’t necessarily render the story any less accurate (nor any more so of course), but they are factors we have to keep in mind for such films regardless.
2)      Chappaquiddick (2018): I haven’t seen Chappaquiddick, the newest feature film about the Kennedys, and perhaps it’s just as much a historical docudrama as Thirteen Days. But in truth, American culture is in a radically different place in 2018 than it was in 2001, and the very act of making a film about the Kennedy family’s darkest and most divisive history and story (and I’m not trying to minimize that tragedy nor Ted Kennedy’s culpability in it, as I wrote in Wednesday’s post) is a necessarily political one in our current moment. Historical films can certainly be political (with Oliver Stone’s JFK a serious case in point), and that element likewise does not necessarily render them less accurate (nor again more so, although nobody tell Oliver Stone). But those that overtly connect to contemporary political debates or perspectives are shaded differently than those (like Thirteen Days) that do not, and that too becomes a factor in considering these films.
3)      Bubba Ho-Tep (2002): And then there’s Bubba Ho-Tep. No sentence or two of description can do justice to this comic horror film, in which an aged Elvis Presley (or someone who delusionally believes he is) and an aged John F. Kennedy-who-happens-to-have-been-turned-into-an-African-American-man (or someone who delusionally believes he is) battle an invasion of the undead in their nursing home. Well, maybe that sentence does do some justice to the film’s unique craziness, one sold pitch-perfectly by stars Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis. That craziness might not sound particularly historical, or at best like the sorts of silly alternative history featured in films like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. But many of the details of Davis’s Kennedy—such as Lyndon Johnson’s abandonment of him in a hospital in order to take the presidency for himself—do at least comment provocatively on historical figures and issues. As this trio of films demonstrates, there’s no one way to creatively engage with the past, and the more genres and styles we add into the mix, the broader and richer the engagement gets.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other Kennedy texts or connections you’d highlight?

Friday, July 20, 2018

July 20, 2018: KennedyStudying: The Loss of Bobby


[On July 18th, 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy was involved in a car accident that left his female companion Mary Jo Kopechne dead. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that Chappaquiddick incident and four other Kennedy family histories, leading up to a weekend post on cultural representations of the family!]
On the possibilities of a Robert Kennedy presidency, and what was lost with his assassination.

First, I want to give this James Baldwin quote, highlighted in the wonderful documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2017), the space it deserves: “I remember when the ex-Attorney General, Mr. Robert Kennedy, said it was conceivable that in 40 years in America we might have a Negro President. That sounded like a very emancipated statement to white people. They were not in Harlem when this statement was first heard. They did not hear the laughter and bitterness and scorn with which this statement was greeted. From the point of view of the man in the Harlem barber shop, Bobby Kennedy only got here yesterday and now he is already on his way to the Presidency. We were here for 400 years and now he tells us that maybe in 40 years, if you are good, we may let you become President.” As usual, Baldwin has an excellent point—the presidency (and more exactly even the consideration or eligibility for the presidency) was itself a particularly glaring form of white privilege for more or less the entirety of American political history; even when Barack Obama finally broke through that barrier in 2008, the Birther movement (which spawned among other things our current horror show of a president) reflected a continued national inability to see an African American as a legitimate president.
So like nearly all of the white men who have run for president, and certainly like those from already prominent and presidential families, Bobby Kennedy did indeed begin from a position of significant privilege. But that doesn’t mean that all those candidates were the same, nor that their prospective presidencies would have been similar. And I would argue that Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign featured a candidate who (compared to just about any prior mainstream presidential candidate) was uniquely and passionately interested in African American Civil Rights. It’s true, and important, that in 1963, as Attorney General under his brother John F. Kennedy’s administration, Robert had to some degree signed off on J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI’s initial surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. (although “to some degree” is an important phrase, as Hoover generally did what he wanted regardless of presidents or administrations). But it’s also true that Robert, who in response to a May 1962 interviewer’s question about “the big problem ahead for you,” answered “Civil Rights,” was a dedicated supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, from the biggest scales (using troops to enforce desegregation and protect Freedom Riders) to the more intimate ones (responding to Mildred Loving’s letter and helping the family pursue their ground-breaking court case). “Dr. King may be gone,” John Lewis recalls saying after King’s assassination, “but we still have Robert Kennedy.”
King’s April 4th assassination took place during the 1968 presidential primaries, in which Robert Kennedy was the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination (incumbent Lyndon Johnson had decided not to run again). As Lewis’s quote thus reflects, Kennedy had brought that emphasis on Civil Rights to his campaign, along with broader but interconnected proposals for racial and economic justice, an advocacy for America’s youth, and social change. His June 4th, 1968 victory in the California primary solidified his position as the likely nominee; while addressing supporters the night of that victory in the ballroom of Los Angeles’s Ambassador Hotel, Kennedy was shot and fatally wounded by Sirhan Sirhan, a 24 year old Palestinian apparently angry at Kennedy’s support for Israel. The assassination was a horrific tragedy on its own terms, as any and all such killings are. But when we consider what a Bobby Kennedy presidency might have been—not least because eventual nominee Eugene McCarthy was soundly beaten by Richard Nixon, in a campaign in which Nixon relied overtly on the racist Southern Strategy—the tragedy is greatly compounded. We can never know for sure what Kennedy’s presidency would have looked like, but we can still mourn the loss of the chance to find out.
Special post this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other Kennedy connections you’d highlight?

Thursday, July 19, 2018

July 19, 2018: KennedyStudying: Conspiracy Theories


[On July 18th, 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy was involved in a car accident that left his female companion Mary Jo Kopechne dead. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that Chappaquiddick incident and four other Kennedy family histories, leading up to a weekend post on cultural representations of the family!]
On two ways to AmericanStudy the one assassination we can’t quite accept.
There have been lots of political assassinations, successful and attempted, in American history, and as far as I can tell in every case but one we’ve collectively accepted the identity of the individual who pulled the trigger. From John Wilkes Booth to Leon Czolgosz, James Earl Ray to Sirhan Sirhan, Squeaky Fromme to John Hinckley, each of these assassins or attempted assassins was driven by his or her own unique and complex motivations, and some were certainly part of larger collective conspiracies—such as Booth and his cohort of Confederates or Fromme and the Manson family. Yet despite such connections, and notwithstanding the kinds of questions or uncertainties that surround any historical crime, I would argue that only one American assassination has been subject to consistent, comprehensive suspicions and conspiracy theories: Lee Harvey Oswald’s November 1963 shooting of President John F. Kennedy.
So why has the Kennedy assassination been so singularly controversial? I think there are a couple AmericanStudies explanations for that trend. (To be clear, books—many, many books—have been written about the Kennedy assassination and its conspiracy theories, and I’m sure that the angles I’ll cover here are part of those existing conversations.) For one thing, as the famous 1960 televised debate between Kennedy and Richard Nixon demonstrates, this was a new era in American media, one in which television had just begun to change the way we received and understood our news and our society. Perhaps no single moment better illustrates that change than the live televised shooting of Oswald        by troubled Dallas businessman Jack Ruby. And it seems to me that seeing such an event on live television might well lead to more visceral responses to and varied speculations about it than reading a report on the shooting in the next day’s newspaper, or hearing a reporter’s description of it on the radio. Ironically, that is, the end of the same presidency that began in no small measure because of the power of television and new media has been forever clouded by those same factors.
There’s another side to the media coverage of the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath, though: the power of one very determined, definitely extremist person to utilize the media to advance and perpetuate his ideas. I’m referring of course to Jim Garrison, the New Orleans District Attorney who became and has remained the leading proponent and symbol of the JFK conspiracy theories. As the pieces linked under “definitely extremist” and “perpetuate his ideas” indicate, Garrison seems to represent some of the most unlikely and even absurd sides to those theories—yet he was able to present them in media-savvy and convincing ways, to the point where he sufficiently swayed filmmaker Oliver Stone that Stone made Garrison (as played by Kevin Costner) the famous centerpiece of his controversial film JFK (1991). And in techniques like its blending of archival footage with “re-created” (fictionalized) scenes, Stone’s film extended this use of media images and narratives, making it that much harder to separate fact from fiction when it comes to the most prominent and enduring conspiracy theory in American history.
Last KennedyStudying tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other Kennedy connections you’d highlight?