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Zapruder's Role in American Cinema

July 19, 1998|ANNE BEATTS

As of last week, you can make it a Blockbuster night by taking home the Zapruder film--Abraham Zapruder's on-the-spot accidental home movie of the Kennedy assassination, now available on video. This enables conspiracy buffs, devotees of the History Channel and other people with way too much time on their hands to watch President Kennedy's head exploding over and over again in slo-mo.

Frankly, I must congratulate the video's producers for their good taste in waiting until Jackie was no longer with us. (Presumably Caroline and JFK Jr., toughened up by years of living in a fishbowl, can fend for themselves.) And the decision not to link the release to any Franklin Mint commemoratives was also a wise one.


In any case, few people realize that Zapruder, beyond being a successful Dallas dress manufacturer, also was something of a cinematic auteur. Upon Zapruder's death in 1970, Polyglot University in Muncie, Ind., was the lucky legatee of his other films. Professor Bertram Reynolds, head of PU's renowned film department, has been teaching the course "Zapruder's Other Films" to budding cineastes since 1973.

Here is the official course description from the university catalog:

Zapruder's Other Films: Light and Shadow in the Work of an American Original. Three credits.

Deconstructing the oeuvre of Abraham Zapruder, cinema's naif Grandma Moses, whose penetrating vision chronicles the first two-thirds of the American century. The following films are required viewing:

* "Auntie Sadie and Auntie Sylvia Take a Bike Ride." An early effort, reminiscent of the still photography of Lartigue, in which a lyrical bike ride through Lakehurst, N.J., is overshadowed by disaster as the youthful Zapruder inadvertently captures background footage of the dirigible Hindenberg catching fire at its moorings.

* "Puppies and Kitties in the Flower Garden." One of the most unabashedly sentimental of all Zapruder's films. Puppies and kittens are shown frolicking among the flowers until one of the kittens is abruptly snatched up and carried away by a hawk.

* "Honeymoon in Scotland." Romantic and sensual, showcasing Yetta (Mrs. Abraham) Zapruder, an undiscovered talent who brings to mind Giulietta Masina in Fellini's "Juliet of the Spirits," as she holds her hand up to the camera and pleads, "Stop, already." An intriguing use of symbolism invigorates the sequence where, as the newlyweds pick flowers on the lake shore, the Loch Ness monster is visible in the background destroying a fishing craft and its crew.

* "Grandma's Birthday Picnic." Initially a lighthearted comedy in the style of Jacques Tati, focusing on Zapruder's own efforts to get the barbecue going, with many laugh-inducing mishaps such as the family dog stealing the hot dog buns, etc. The comedic mood turns darker when background footage reveals that the picnic is taking place within range of the University of Texas Tower harboring Charles Whitman, and Grandma is accidentally wounded by a stray bullet.

* "Class Trip to Washington." A tender coming-of-age story, featuring Zapruder's granddaughter Jennifer and her high school class visiting landmarks in our nation's capital. Zapruder's brilliant interplay of light and dark elements is typified by the sequence where the camera captures two high-up government officials in an elevator at the Pentagon discussing the use of Sarin nerve gas on American defectors in Laos while Jennifer and her classmates chatter in the foreground. (PRINT MISSING.)

* "Gloria's Wedding." A true tour de force. This is the last and perhaps the most personal of all Zapruder's films. At his niece's wedding, Zapruder attempts to film the proceedings despite his assembled relatives' pleas for him to "stop, for God's sake, Abe, before something bad happens." After the ceremony, Zapruder, rather than the bride and groom, is violently pelted with rice in a Keatonesque moment. In their attempt to flee the ubiquitous ever-searching eye of his camera, the young couple run out into the street, where they are hit by a bus, and a three-car pileup results.

All films will be shown in their original formats.

* Anne Beatts is a writer who lives in Hollywood.

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