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Romancing Stone

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"I think I found a bombshell, actually," exclaimed Chris Larson, clutching his 14-by-22-inch grainy blowup photo of President John Kennedy's brain spurting out of his skull. "I think this is the smoking gun everyone's looking for." Larson had come all the way from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, to show his prized reproduction to director Oliver Stone at a panel discussion on the movie JFK.

Stone was in town last week to get an award from the Chicago International Film Festival. They were naming him "director of the decade." He nodded intently as Larson theorized that the FBI and UPI had doctored the original image to disguise the truth about the trajectory of the bullet that hit Kennedy's head. Larson--holding up his photo--then posed for pictures with Stone, who also autographed a movie poster for him. But Larson couldn't get Bill Kurtis, one of the panelists, to stand by him for a snapshot.

Larson, an insurance underwriter, has been chasing after evidence on Kennedy's assassination for the past five years. His partner has been on the trail for 17 years, accumulating hundreds of books and even real autopsy photos. For the past year the two have been delivering an illustrated lecture titled "The Triangle of Conspiracy" in the Sheboygan area.

They got their blowup by rephotographing a picture that was published in a "very rare" 1968 book by "a personal friend of Kennedy's." When copies of the photo appear in other publications, they're missing a blurry triangular smudge just above and behind Kennedy's head. But this murky detail tells Larson that the bullet came from the front, not from behind the president's head, as the Warren Commission concluded.

The original was a Polaroid shot taken by Mary Moorman, who no longer wants to talk about it. But Larson says her friend Jean Hill, who was standing next to her when they saw Kennedy shot, says she too saw what Moorman's camera captured. According to Larson, UPI took a picture of her picture back in 1963, and somebody altered the resulting negative. But not before at least one print was made that showed a bloody cloud of gray matter.

So where's the original Polaroid? "It's like the president's brain--it's gone," says Larson.

Stone had many more fans in the crowd. One admirer lugged his 16-millimeter movie camera to the event, hoping a little of Stone's aura would rub off. Studs Terkel, moderator of the panel discussion, lauded Stone as "a troublemaker in the best sense of the word." Craig Zirbel, who published a conspiracy book that was on the best-seller lists, announced, "Mr. Stone should be considered for a Medal of Freedom."

The panel was there not to decide who shot JFK but to defend Stone. Jeff Cohen, executive director of FAIR, which monitors the media for antiliberal bias, argued, "When you look at the accusations made in national news outlets against Oliver Stone, you see that some of these same accusations could have been made against themselves. For example, Dan Rather. On the movie JFK he asks, 'Is it an outright rewrite of history?' And of course it was Dan Rather who at the point of conception rewrote perhaps the most important piece of evidence in the JFK case: the Zapruder film." Rather was the first to report on the now-familiar footage, and Cohen concluded he "was 180 degrees wrong" about where the bullet came from.

Panelist Roger Ebert speculated that all the op-ed-page commentators in the Washington Post and the New York Times who slammed JFK for factual deficits made a mistake when they took yellow legal pads to the theater. He said they should have taken popcorn, Milk Duds, and Jujubes, which he called essential to consuming cinema--oral gratification eases audiences into an emotional susceptibility and intellectual innocence.

Ebert went on to say a director like Oliver Stone is "like a God who says 'Give me your attention for the next two hours or three hours, and I will experience the world for you. I will say, look here, look there. Look for a longer time, look for a closer time. Regard this. Think about that. Be afraid of this. Be attracted to that.' And for two hours--if the director's doing the job--that's what's happening to us. We are voyeurs, and we are having an out-of-the-body experience."

Hard facts have no point in good movies, Ebert said. Sensual momentum does. "If a movie is working, we should not be particularly aware of what our name is, what our address is, our telephone number, our social-security number. We should be Ron Kovic or we should be John Wayne." He ended his defense of movies like JFK by stating, "The movies are not the right medium for making a coherent, logical argument. The medium for that is the written word."

Stone got the last word on packaging truth. "You can slant the words," he insisted. "If you read the Warren Commission, all 26 volumes, they deaden, they bury, they suffocate. There's 400 pages in there about Oswald's baby-sitter, his pubic hair, and everything that doesn't matter. They suffocate you in verbal matter, and it becomes difficult for you to see clearly. What film can do is go for the bone."

Questions then came from the floor. Someone asked if the discussion was being recorded. Terkel said he didn't think so.

"Any threats on your life?" someone asked Stone.

"Nothing that's legitimate," Stone replied. "The threat's always the press. They did the dirty work by destroying my credibility." He then fingered a Washington Post reporter he said covered the CIA for 30 years. "I'm not saying he works for the CIA. But he sleeps with them."

Someone asked what Jackie said about the assassination.

Stone, his eyes widening, said simply, "She married Onassis." Jabbing his finger at the audience, he added, "Think about that."

A woman asked who could be powerful enough to kill Kennedy and then cover it up so thoroughly.

Stone asked rhetorically, "Who runs the country? Who owns reality?" Sounding half serious, he quipped, "The Wizard of Oz."

Studs then announced, "I hear we got to blow this joint by 7:30." He looked around for a hand in the air. "One more shot, if you'll forgive the phrase."

Afterward, outside the ballroom, stragglers from the discussion investigated the edible debris from a buffet for a radiologists' reception. Chris Larson approached the few paparazzi surrounding Stone and tried to buy a shot of him and Stone to take back to Sheboygan. "Is it possible for me to get the negative?" he asked.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.

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