Arguably the most discussed and dissected film of all time was not the creation of a Hollywood studio or a European or Asian master of cinematic art. Instead, it was made by an amateur and consisted of a mere 483 frames with a total running time of 26 seconds.
The film was shot by a Dallas businessman named Abraham Zapruder, who had only purchased his 8mm Bell & Howell Zoomatic Director Series Camera the year before, but barely used it prior to his impulsive decision to record the motorcade bringing President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy to Dallas for a political fundraiser on November 22, 1963.
As everyone knows by now, Zapruder’s footage turned out to be anything but a benign home movie. It is weirdly ironic that President Kennedy, who at the time was the single most photographed man ever to occupy the White House, would be killed in full view of a camera’s lens. Yet in the untrained hands of Zapruder, the film of the Kennedy assassination proved to be the most hypnotically horrible ribbon of celluloid ever shot.
Much of the continuing fascination with the Zapruder film is the visual quality, or perhaps the lack thereof. Zapruder had no clue how to operate the camera and it shows: the picture is terribly centered, with the motorcade mostly occupying the bottom third of the frame, and the muddy Kodachrome II safety film is a little out-of-focus. The film is also silent, though it does not take an overactive imagination to hear the sounds of gunfire and the screams of the onlookers as the president’s skull explodes in a sickly burst of blood that looks curiously amber-colored on Zapruder’s film. The film’s hopelessly amateur appearance clearly makes it look like an accidental glimpse to tragedy, thus making it all the more shocking (where were the professional cameramen at the time?), and this unclear quality would later serve to fuel endless conspiracies regarding who shot the president and from where the bullets came.
Almost immediately, Zapruder feared that his film would be bootlegged. At first, he was spared the indignity of illegal duplication and only four copies were made from the original 8mm film. Zapruder sold the original film and one copy to Life Magazine, which ran selected frames in its pages, with a remaining copy being kept by Zapruder himself and the other copies given to the Secret Service to aid in the assassination investigation. Strangely, the Warren Commission never subpoenaed the original film, but relied on a second-generation dupe.
Zapruder’s fears of bootleg copies came true almost immediately after the film was processed. The first round of bootlegging came from, of all people, the editors at Life Magazine, who secretly ordered copies of the film for themselves. The next round came in late 1964 when some enterprising researchers made crude black-and-white films from the reproduced frames that were printed in the official Warren Commission report. In 1968, Robert Groden made an unauthorized copy when Life Magazine sent the 8mm original to the New Jersey photo lab where he was employed. Groden would secretly spend the next several years enhancing the film’s poor visual quality and would later make his handsome bootleg print available to conspiracy theorists.
But the Zapruder film truly made its way into bootleg heaven in 1969 when New Orleans prosecutor Jim Garrison subpoenaed Life Magazine to make the film available as part of his Kennedy assassination conspiracy trial against Clay Shaw. Both Zapruder and his film were present during the trial. On February 13, 1969, the Zapruder film had its first public screening at the Clay Shaw trial when Garrison ran it for the courtroom five times during the course of the day. While Garrison’s case was eventually laughed out of court, the prosecutor made the extraordinary decision to permit the duplication of 100 copies of the film for distribution to colleges and universities. Even though Life Magazine controlled the copyright of the film, Garrison’s decision to flaunt the copyright laws and to bootleg the film marked a milestone in the history of illegally pirated movies.
The 1970s became the decade of the Zapruder bootleg bonanza (Zapruder himself died of cancer in 1970 and, mercifully, never lived to see his film’s unprotected distribution). The Groden version of the film turned up for the first time at a Boston research conference in 1975, and was later released when a group called the Assassination Information Bureau began selling dupes of the Groden version for $30 plus a set of enhanced slides. The Groden version also caught the attention of Geraldo Rivera, who ran a copy on his ABC News program “Good Night America” on March 6, 1975. This marked the first time that the American public saw the film in its 26-second entirety on national television. One month later, Time Inc. (which took over the assets of the defunct Life Magazine) transferred the copyright back to the Zapruder family, as it clearly could not keep track of the various bootleg versions in circulation.
The following year, a private collector named Penn Jones offered KERA-TV in Dallas, a public television station, his 16mm bootleg version of the Zapruder film to be shown as part of the station’s annual fundraising drive. His gift was rejected by the station’s management, citing a lack of good taste in the offer.
The Zapruder film was out of the news until 1988 when a filmmaker named Chip Selby filed a suit against Henry Zapruder, the son of Abraham. Henry had refused Selby’s request to license the film for a documentary the latter was making, and Selby filed a suit claiming there should be no copyright claim to the footage since the Zapruder family failed to curb its unauthorized replication. Settlement was reached a month after the suit was filed, with Selby gaining the footage and then selling his completed documentary to the A&E television network, which marked its cable television debut.
Get the rest of the story in part three of THE BOOTLEG FILES: “THE ZAPRUDER FILM OF THE KENNEDY ASSASSINATION”>>>

Posted on September 19, 2003 in Features by

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  1. Ron Cerabona on Fri, 30th Dec 2011 7:09 am 

    “Flaunt” should be “flout” here.

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