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As Seen on TV

A film series at the Warhol looks at President Kennedy's life and death

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In November 1960, Norman Mailer predicted in Esquire that "America's politics would now be also America's favorite movie, America's first soap opera, America's bestseller ..." And the first great star of that new entertainment was John F. Kennedy, a new breed of politician who embraced the dominant media of film and television. How ironic indeed that Kennedy's life should end like the worst sort of potboiler -- captured, of course, on film.

 

In conjunction with its exhibit Image, Memory, Myth: November 22, 1963, The Andy Warhol Museum offers a series of films over the next four months that examine the events surrounding the myths and realities of JFK's presidency and death.

 

The series begins while the sun still shone on Camelot with four films shot or produced by former Life picture editor Robert Drew. They include Primary (1960), the ground-breaking vérité look at the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic primary, Adventures on the New Frontier (1961) and Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963), the latter two filmed in part "on location" in the White House and other executive offices.

 

The Drew films are remarkable in hindsight, reflecting an easy and open access to the inner sanctum of politics unimaginable today: JFK puts his feet on the desk, John Kenneth Galbraith drops by, the President chats with his sisters and worries aloud about Africa. Small wonder Americans felt "close" to this President who was always "starring" on TV.

 

Still, not all was rosy: Also screening this weekend is the 1960 HUAC propaganda film, Operation Abolition, which uses dubious news footage of demonstrators outside HUAC hearings in San Francisco to "prove" that Communist subversives were lurking everywhere. Kennedy's banning of this film from military bases was cited with outrage in a full-page ad taken out by prominent right-wingers in the Dallas Morning News on Nov. 22, 1963.

 

And for an administration so preternaturally media savvy (Kennedy hired consultants and rehearsed quips), it seems freakishly logical that the President's death would also occur on camera -- though ironically the veracity of that filmed image would never completely stand as truth. Commissioned by ABC to document Kennedy's funeral, Drew instead filmed close-ups of stunned mourners -- from celebrity brother-in-law Peter Lawford to ordinary citizens lined up to view the casket or cortege. ABC never ran this 12-minute film, Faces of November, but its wordless, stark black-and-white testimony remains deeply powerful.

 

The series will also present rarely screened Hollywood films riffing on the assassination, including Executive Action (1973) and Winter Kills (1979); news footage from private collections; short films dealing specifically with the assassination; and documentaries such as NBC's critical 1967 look at Jim Garrison's JFK investigation. Of interest to Kennedy completists will be a showing in January of War is Hell, the 1963 Korean War drama that was playing in the Texas Theater where Lee Harvey Oswald took refuge and was subsequently arrested. Also, in the exhibit area, amateur conspiracists can study and manipulate a 26-second loop from the infamous Zapruder film stored on a computer, as well as view a 30-minute compilation of 18 different home movies shot the weekend of Kennedy's death.

 

The museum will have daily screenings of Andy Warhol's 1967 film Since. Slightly over an hour, the film depicts Factory regulars re-enacting the JFK assassination with a couch substituting for the Presidential limo, bananas delivering the lethal shots and large sheets of red construction paper denoting blood. The actors variously portray John F. Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ladybird Johnson, Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby and assorted police figures. Though disjointed and rambling, these actors exhibit an easy familiarity with the historical figures, obviously reinforced through -- what else -- repeated television viewing.

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