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Shedding light on movies about a dark day in Dallas

Like a handful of epochal events -- Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11, 2001, among them -- this one summons the full battery of emotional responses. Horror, grief, outrage -- and, as the mystery spreads and deepens, helpless confusion.

So why wouldn't Hollywood be drawn to John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963? It's a made-to-order scenario, a real-life happening that's stranger than fiction, and all that.

But how have the movies acquitted themselves in treating the subject? Have they served, exploited, or trivialized that day in Dallas, arguably this nation's darkest prior to 9/11?

It's something to consider as we prepare to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the shooting -- once recalled as The Day Camelot Died -- and we look back on Hollywood dramatizations, past and present, intended and coincidental.

Warner Brothers is marking the date with a special-edition "JFK" DVD. Paramount Pictures and Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme are at work on a big-budget remake of John Frankenheimer's 1962 classic "The Manchurian Candidate," starring Denzel Washington in the Frank Sinatra role and Meryl Streep as the evil mother originally played by Angela Lansbury.

"The Kennedy assassination remains the ultimate unsolved mystery," says Todd Boyd, who uses Oliver Stone's "JFK" in his classes at the University of Southern California's School of Cinema -- Television. "Because there were so many questions after the Warren Report, it's a chapter that has never been closed. That the assassination films themselves are so different (see accompanying story) suggests that this is a topic on which people have many opinions."

But actor-director Peter Bogdanovich ("The Last Picture Show," "Paper Moon") thinks the subject should remain off-limits. "Nobody knows what happened, including Stone, so it's impossible to really tell," he says. "I know I wouldn't tackle it. I don't want to make something that's fake. It's much too big a story."

Boyd, author of numerous books on popular culture, discusses "JFK" in his class on cinema and violence. He calls the controversial 1991 movie, starring Kevin Costner as New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, the "ultimate film" on the Dallas shooting and its aftermath.

David R. Wrone, who teaches a course on the Kennedy assassination at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, disagrees vehemently.

His findings, based on scrupulous study of the 8mm home movie shot by Abraham Zapruder as the presidential motorcade passed the Texas School Book Depository, can be found in his new book, "The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK's Assassination."

According to Wrone, the Zapruder film -- 26 seconds of grainy celluloid often referred to as the most complete record of the assassination -- proves Stone's theory that there was more than one gunman. However, Stone's premise -- that the CIA and the military-industrial complex attempted to knock Kennedy off -- is "irrational," and "80 percent of the film is in factual error," Wrone says. "There weren't CIA training camps in Louisiana. The depository window in the film is too high up and open too far. One could just go on and on. The film fails on logic, fails on fact."

As for those other movies on the subject -- from 1973's "Executive Action" to last year's "Interview with the Assassin" -- they're nothing more than "the commercial exploitation of a great tragedy," Wrone says. "They're not becoming a great nation -- or a great movie industry, for that matter." "Given the enormity of the subject and the incredible impact of the assassination, I find it amazing there haven't been more such films," says critic-essayist Greil Marcus of Berkeley, Calif., who has written a book on "The Manchurian Candidate."

"If anything," Marcus adds, "Hollywood has ignored this story, cheapened and reduced it." Overall, he says, the assassination movies represent "a failure of imagination."

That could be because paranoia and dread have never been big at the box office, points out novelist and screenwriter Jon Boorstin, who was assistant director on the highly regarded "The Parallax View" (1974) and associate producer on "All the President's Men" (1976).

"Hollywood makes a business of whatever cultural viruses are in the air and then spreads them around," he observes from his office in Studio City, Calif. "If there aren't many conspiracy movies, it's because there is a lack of interest in them by the public."

However, everyone contacted seemed intrigued by the remake of "The Manchurian Candidate" -- except for Henry Silva, who exchanged karate chops with Sinatra in the film's big fight sequence.

He thinks the remake is a mistake. "Why do it?" asks the veteran character actor, 75. "The original's still as timely as the day we shot it. It's still devastating in its relevancy."

It's also very much a product of the Cold War, when Americans were concerned with communist conspiracies. "How can the new film reach that level of fear and paranoia?" asks Silva. "The new filmmakers are not part of the turmoil that was taking place in the early '60s."

Word is that the new film addresses the current war on terrorism. Could it be played more tongue-in-cheek? Quite possibly, if the most recent films to either treat or touch on the Kennedy assassination are any indication.

"For the younger generation, the events don't mean as much," says USC's Boyd. "And this means filmmakers are not going to have the same reverence for the event and won't treat it as seriously." That's fine with Wrone. "The facts in `Interview with the Assassin' were so egregiously in error, I had to stop watching it," he says. "But I must admit it was niftily done."

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