- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (26/11/2021)
(Reviews of JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass; The First Wave; and Rebel Dykes)
Even though something approaching normality has returned, not everyone is keen on sitting in cinemas, whether they've been vaccinated or not.
Consequently, the streaming platforms are continuing to show new releases, albeit in smaller numbers, as the distributors seek to return to single ticketing after a prolonged period of all in for the price of one. In addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation will be staying open for business. Whatever choice you make, stay safe. Remember, Covid's not gone away yet!
JFK REVISITED: THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS.
Oliver Stone deserves another crack at the events that occurred in Dallas, Texas on 22 November 1963. After all, it was his engrossing, if deeply flawed film, JFK (1991), that led to the passing of the 1992 Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act that made papers pertaining to the shooting available for public scrutiny well before the prior release date of 2029.
This, in turn, prompted the founding of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which revisited many of the conclusions reached by the Warren Commission of September 1964, which had insisted that gunman Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in killing Kennedy and wounding Governor John Connally with the aid of a so-called `magic bullet' that had defied the laws of ballistic probability to pass through the president and bounce around his host's torso before becoming embedded in his thigh.
Opening with Stone strolling through Dealey Plaza, JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass wastes little time in debunking the notion that the three bullets that Oswald fired (one of which missed the target completely) were solely responsible for the damage caused to Kennedy's throat and skull. Slowing down the amateur footage taken by Abraham Zapruder, Stone raises the question that shots came from the front of the motorcade, as well as the rear.
As experts dismiss the ricocheting bullet theory and trace the `chain of custody' to raise doubts about the authenticity of the bullet that was found on the stretcher that had been used to carry Kennedy into the Parkland Hospital, Stone moves on to the 6.5mm Mannlicher-Carcano infantry rifle that was found beside three shell casings on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. Questions are posed about the bore disparities and the validity of one of the three photographs supposedly taken by Oswald's wife, Marina, showing him posing with the weapon in his backyard. The position of the strap on the rifle varies in the final snap, as does the hand on which Oswald wears his wedding ring.
In declaring himself a patsy while under interrogation, Oswald denied that he had posed for the rogue picture and Stone casts further doubt by positing whether he had actually been on the sixth floor at all, as he would surely have encountered employees Vicki Adams, Sandra Styles and Dorothy Garner on the staircase during his flight - yet they swore they saw nobody at the time immediately after the shooting. The precise timing was actually meddled with by the Warren Commission and it comes as no surprise to learn that members John Sherman Cooper, Richard Russell, Jr. and Hale Boggs had refused to buy into the lone gunman theory.
Parkland doctors Clark Kemp and Malcolm Perry are the next to have their testimony scrutinised. Commentators claim that Secret Service agent Elmer Moore persuaded the latter into confirming that the wound in Kennedy's throat was caused by a bullet exiting rather than entering his body. as had been stated by distressed White House Press Secretary Malcolm Kildiff in a press briefing in the aftermath of the shooting. They stuck to this story in subsequent media interviews, but close associates tell Stone that they had regretted being railroaded into pushing the `official' version of events.
Having established that Kennedy's corpse was illegally removed from Parkland and transferred to the Bethesda Naval Hospital, Stone lays bare the problems facing the relatively inexperienced autopsy trio of James Humes, Thornton Boswell and Pierre Finck, as they were placed under duress to make their findings match the single gun theory. Their misgivings were noted by attending FBI agents Frank O'Neill and James Sibert, who were not called by Chief Justice Earl Warren because they had been swayed by overheard remarks from the medics about the frontal wound in Kennedy's throat.
Coercing respected professionals into putting their reputations on the line wasn't enough, however, for those involved in what Stone and his guests are convinced was a meticulously planned conspiracy. Even the photographic evidence of Kennedy's autopsy was tampered with to suit the narrative. The official pictures were taken by John Stringer, who later denied taking some of the shots on which Warren based his conclusions. In fact, these were taken by White House photographer Robert Knudsen and showed the president's head to be bloodied, but intact with no occipital wound.
JFK's personal physician, George Burkley, was also convinced to co-operate with the authorities. He signed off an inaccurate autopsy report whose findings were further amended during the Warren hearings by commission member (and future president) Gerald Ford, who changed the wording of a statement describing an entry wound to move it six inches from `back' to `back of the head' to reinforce the impression that the president had been shot from behind.
Having suggested active interference in the gathering and presentation of physical evidence relating to the assassination, Stone moves on to shed fresh light on the man who pulled the trigger. By all accounts, the CIA knew plenty about Oswald before he was picked up at the Texas Theatre during a double bill of Burt Topper's War Is Hell (1961) and Irving Lerner's Cry of Battle (1963).
During his stint with the Marine Corps, he had been stationed at the Atsugi base that had conducted CIA-sanctioned surveillance flights over China and State Department Intelligence agent Otto Otepka reached the conclusion that Oswald had been recruited around this time to defect to the Soviet Union as a spy rather than a committed supporter of the Communist regime. His insights were ignored, however, although the FBI kept tabs on Oswald during his dealings with David Ferrie, Guy Banister and Clay Shaw and with both Fair Play For Cuba and various anti-Castro groups based in New Orleans.
Without going into much detail about Oswald's apparent attempt to murder Major General Edwin Walker on 10 April 1963 using the rifle he had ordered by mail order under the alias A. Hidell. Stone goes on to reveal that the security warning was removed from Oswald's FBI file in the weeks leading up to the assassination, so that he could move without prying eyes and relocate to Dallas without arousing any suspicion. This act was promptly covered up by George Joannides, a CIA officer who had been running the Cuban groups with which Oswald had been associated. Also buried were reports that two further attempts on Kennedy's life had been planned, with Thomas Arthur Vallee being set up as the stooge in Chicago on 2 November 1963 and Gilbert Policarpo Lopez being lined-up in Tampa on 18 November. The Windy City trip had been cancelled after Abraham Bolden, the first African American Secret Service agent to be appointed to the Presidential Protective Division, had questioned the safety of the route. However, he would be prevented from testifying to the Warren Commission by a trumped-up bribery charge that resulted in him spending six years in prison.
Wrapping up the evidential segment, Stone turns to a motive for eliminating President Kennedy. He points a finger at former CIA chief Allen Dulles, who had been fired by JFK after being misled before the botched Bay of Pigs invasion. Yet, he found himself on the Warren Commission and Stone is certain that he was imposed upon Warren by the CIA to ensure that he could steer the inquiry away from sensitive issues.
The assassination wasn't simply an act of revenge, however. Dulles shared the view of many at the Pentagon that Kennedy's progressive peace policy would be ruinous. Consequently, he was removed before he could withdraw US troops from Vietnam and end a conflict that his successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, would escalate over the next few years. However, Stone leaves us with a hint that Kennedy's support of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement might also have convinced those with southern sympathies to remove the possibility of a second term.
There's much to take in here and it's to Stone's credit that he presents his evidence cogently and without flourish. There are loose ends, with little being said about the Mary Moorman photograph allegedly showing the so-called Badge Man sniping from behind the stockade fence on the grassy knoll. But this isn't strictly central to Stone's agenda, as he is more concerned with shredding the Warren Commission's key findings.
Despite having to compete with Jeff Beal's insistent, intrusive score, he does a decent job of this. And he's solidly abetted by narrators Whoopi Goldberg and Donald Sutherland and such highly credible interviewees as Cyril H. Wecht, David Mantik, John R. Tunheim, David Talbot, John Newman, Lisa Pease, Gary Aguilar, Douglas Horne, Barry Ernest, Paul Bleau, Deborah Conway, Brian Edwards, James Gochenaur, Philip Muehlenbeck, Robert Rakove and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Indeed, Stone has shattered myths before, notably in his eye-opening 12-part series, The Untold History of the United States (2012). Yet, interestingly, he elects to depict Kennedy in his shining Camelot armour rather than present the warts and all version that is now accepted as being closer to the truth.
But, while Stone and screenwriter James DiEugenio mine the official record to come up with a plausible argument - which they dub `conspiracy fact' - they leave unanswered questions that they have presumably decided against speculating on for fear of undermining the credibility of the case placed before the viewer. If Oswald didn't pull the trigger, who did? This may well be a puzzle that will survive the release of the remaining archive material. Let's hope Stone's still around in 2029 to offer his interpretation.
THE FIRST WAVE.
Film critics watch a lot of films they wouldn't necessarily choose to see. This is particularly true with documentaries on topics that either disinterest or disturb. The more conscientious will do their job and try to present their readers with an honest assessment and this sense of duty can lead to some amazing discoveries and some humbling experiences.
A case in point is Matthew Heineman's The First Wave, which explores the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the staff and patients of the Long Island Jewish Medical Centre in the New York borough of Queens between March and June 2020. For those who have already seen Weixi Chen's 76 Days and John Hoffman and Janet Tobias's Fauci, this intimate snapshot of an unfolding crisis might feel like something to watch at a later date, when the threat of a winter surge has passed and life has returned to whatever normal looks like these days.
But, as he demonstrated with Cartel Land (2015) and City of Ghosts (2017), Heineman has a gift for creating a sense of immediacy that draws viewers into the heart of his actualities. In The First Wave, however, he not only provides a vivid record of what things were like on the medical frontline, but he also reminds us how much we owe to those who provided care and those who found the vaccines.
Heineman also highlights that, while this was a virus from which no one was immune, a disproportionate number of those who died in New York State (which, in mid-spring 2020, had more confirmed cases than any country in the world) were from the Hispanic, African American and Asian American communities. Indeed, Dr Nathalie Dougé was so appalled by these statistics that, when she wasn't working long and often emotionally exhausting shifts at the Jewish Medical Centre, she was on Black Lives Matter marches, following the murder of George Floyd.
As an NYPD school safety officer, Ahmed Ellis would have expected to play an important part in these protests. But the thirtysomething diabetic was fighting for his life under the care of Dr Dougé, nurse Kellie Wunsch and physical therapist Karl Arabian. Despite being a mother of two, Wunsch volunteered to be part of a rapid response team and the strain of confronting constant tragedy often brings her to tears. But it never brings her to her knees and anyone watching should be humbled by the fact that there were tens of thousands of others like her who took enormous risks in order to provide care.
When not filming eerily empty streets or dropping in on Mayor Andrew Cuomo's press briefings, Heineman also keeps an eye on Ellis wife, Alexis (another essential worker in the healthcare system), and their two young children. He also spends time with Naph Jabon, a nurse at the same Manhasset rehabilitation centre as his wife, Brussels. She contracted Covid-19 while pregnant with their second child and underwent an emergency C-section prior to being placed on a ventilator. While she recovers, sister Athens Garrote helps Naph keep the family going and provides Brussels with plenty of face time support.
These two are fortunate in getting to heat George Harrison singing `Here Comes the Sun', which was adopted as the hospital's song for those coming off ventilation. But Heineman's camera records a handful of deaths in unflinching, but respectful close-up. These distressing instances contrast harrowingly with Naph's first meeting with his son, Lyon, through the window of a car driven by the cousin looking after the infant until the Jabon household gets the all clear.
Such scenes should serve to remind us of how lucky we are to have come through the worst of a cruelly unpredictable and undiscriminating pandemic. But they should also alert us to the fact that a moment in which humanity was united in its common fragility has passed and that we seem to have learned nothing from it in regards to co-existing in tolerant harmony and compassionate fellowship. What a foolish species we are and how many more chances to change the unsustainable way we live do we expect to pass up?
A few weeks ago, we celebrated the social, political and cultural impact of the Greenham Common protests in Briar March's Mothers of the Revolution. The vigil at the RAF base in Berkshire also proves pivotal to the story told in another documentary, Harri Shanahan and Sîan Williams's Rebel Dykes, which has been produced by Siobhan Fahey, who made her name with Bananarama and Shakespeare's Sister.
The threat of nuclear warfare wasn't the only topic on the minds of the women who gathered at Greenham Common. They also discussed such pressing issues as homophobia, gender inequality, racism and the iniquities of Thatcherism. Moreover, in addition to trying to right the world, the protesters also did much to foster musical, literary and artistic creativity, while also providing a haven for women seeking communal support.
In order to allow women to find like-minded companions amongst the massed ranks, the camps at the different gates of the base had their own distinctive character. After the main gate was designated Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet, Red, Orange, Turquoise and Emerald camps sprang up at other places around the perimeter. As the contributors note, Blue gate was something of a party hub, as it tended to attract the younger and more rebellious women. It also happened to be the gate nearest to the local pub, although that didn't prevent a raid on the camp bar to liberate supplies of alcohol.
Each gate had a lesbian enclave and certain speakers confess to having come to Greenham as much out of lust as a desire to change the world. However, there were divisions within the sisterhood, as separatist feminists felt it ran counter to their commitment to have a male cat, let alone a male lover. This tension is recalled on camera with a mix of regret and amusement by the Rebel Dykes who were driven more by punk than dry academic tomes. But positions became more entrenched as a growing number of women like Rosanne Rabonowitz and Karen Fisch left Greenham and found themselves squatting in South London.
All agree that the capital was an unfriendly and often unsafe place for lesbians during the Thatcher decade. But lots of women who had been rejected by their families found a warm welcome in communal houses that provided a support network. Furthermore, those with shared interests gravitated towards one another, such the members of the Black Widows biker group. Music also provided a unifying outlet, with Yvonne Taylor forming part of the Sistermatic DJ quartet and Debbie Smith being inspired by Sluts From Outer Space to join Mouth Almighty. Artists like Atalanta Kernick also found their niche.
A popular venue was the The Bell pub on Pentonville Road. But the game changer was Chain Reaction, a club night that was launched at the Market Tavern in Vauxhall by Seija Hirstio from Finland. Among the regular performers in a cabaret that ranged from the pornographic to the Pythonesque were Baya from Germany and Maj Ikle, who then went under the name `Jane, Jane Queen of Pain'. She recalls the wackiness of attractions like spaghetti hoop wrestling and the unabashed nature of the exhibitionist sex shows, whose S&M influence resulted in the club being picketed by Women Against Violence Against Women, who are branded `the sex police' for their insistence that anything suggesting restraint and aggression was anti-feminist. Indeed, they are roundly mocked for averring that amorous activity should be limited to holding hands in 20 passionate positions.
For the likes of transgender rights activist Roz Kaveney and outsider artist
Poulomi Usurp Desai, Chain Reaction was much accepting and inclusive than other venues on the scene. Lisa Power, a co-founder of Stonewall, also had a contretemps with the separatists when she launched Thrilling Bits, a mail order sex toy business that sparked a debate about the politics of penetration and the market for non-phallic dildos. In a jab at the more radical wing of the movement power named her smallest and least effective dildo after radical activist Sheila Jeffreys, who was unamused.
Disquiet was also voiced about magazines like Quim, which was based on the American publication, On Our Backs, which is hailed by photographer Lulu Belliveau and model Aphra. Del La Grace Volcano's photo book, Love Bites (1991), also caused a stir and attempts were made to confiscate copies under the Obscene Publications Act.
Siobhan Fahey pops up to comment on the oppressive attitude of the Tory establishment at a time when the AIDS crisis and Section 28 were unifying the LGBT community (as it was then) in bodies like Stonewall. A teacher named Jo recalls going to school when Section 28 was outlawing the positive depiction of lesbian and gay lifestyles in education. She believes a generation was scared by this blinkered legislation, which prompted Susannah Bowyer and others to abseil from the public gallery in the House of Lords.
During the same wave of protests, on 23 May 1988, Rebel Dykes burst into the Six O'Clock News studio where Sue Lawley and Nicholas Witchell were broadcasting and handcuffed themselves to their desk, resulting in the famous Daily Mirror headline, `Beeb man sits on lesbian.' The hated clause would remain law for 15 years, by which time the rebel dyke heyday had long passed. Having gone on to play guitar with Curve and Echobelly, Debbie Smith remains proud of what was achieved in the 1980s, however, and ends the film with the reminder, `Look at lesbian society now. We did that. Be thankful.'
Shanahan and Williams heartily concur and cleverly capture the ethos and spirit of the times with the animated fanzine approach to a documentary that doesn't judge the grainy archive footage on its visual quality. Flitting between topics, it's more a rattlebag of recollections than a strict chronicle. But this ebullient history touches most bases and, in the process, raises as many smiles as it does serious issues.
It's also joyously frank and celebratory in its naughtiness, although the co-directors are quick to point out that sexual activity was often politicised in the skirmishes with the bigots and the radical feminists. But these battles continue today and Shanahan and Williams might have dwelt longer on the Rebel Dyke legacy and its relevance to an ever-changing and often fractious scene.