JFK Revisited · DB Cooper · Jen Shah
Plus, how to consume art by "immoral artists"
Another November 22 is upon us. This date, as you know unless you were literally born yesterday (and possibly even then), marks the anniversary of what is arguably the biggest and most enduring true-crime story in American history, the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas.
A new documentary from Oliver Stone, JFK Revisited: Through The Looking Glass, does in fact argue that — along with a dozen other crackpottish things — in a two-hour special that airs on Showtime’s “linear” channel tonight at 7 PM ET. But folks with the Showtime Anytime app could watch it earlier, so I set up the sofa version of a crazy wall (full pad of Post-Its; sleeping feline) and gave it a look.
On November 22, 1963, President John Kennedy was murdered by at least one gunshot in Dallas. This flavorless statement is probably the only version of what occurred that everyone agrees on, and now that I think about it, you could probably find some Reddit edgelords asserting that he faked his own death and moved into a giant conversation pit inside Mount Weather with Marilyn, but for the purposes of this newsletter*, let’s take at least his demise on faith.
*The true-crime materials that are ALSO called “Best Evidence”? Are about this case. And they’re on sale at Exhibit B. Books all month, along with any other books/whatnots tagged “assassination,” “crackpottery,” and/or “conspiracy.” Enter code EX11 at checkout for tinfoil-hat bargainry!
I got the impression, likely because that’s what the title says, that JFK Revisited would, you know, revisit the movie on the 30th anniversary of its release — go through the arguments the film makes via Kevin Costner’s Jim Garrison as to what really happened and which forces really arrayed themselves against Kennedy that day; compare what was known/in the official record in 1991 to the documents the Assassination Review Board ordered release; admit, perhaps, that feverish adherence to some of these theories was in error, while certain other theories might better explain how all the principal actors got to Dealey Plaza.
It isn’t that. What it is is, because it’s Oliver Stone, eminently watchable at the time, and an incomprehensible core dump of information in retrospect, some probative, some correlation-is-not-causation casualties. After a lengthy montage of contemporary news accounts of the murder that seem designed primarily to impress the audience with Stone’s access, we’re right into slagging the Warren Report via a tart voice-over by Whoopi Goldberg, starting with a lengthy disquisition on the magic bullet and chain of custody. JFKR then moves on to questioning whether the rifle in evidence is the rifle Lee Harvey Oswald ordered; who pressured various medical examiners to change their testimony on exit wounds; numerous talking-head interviews with authors of dense self-published (…probably) academic-esque treatises on the CIA’s involvement in everything from this to New Coke; doctored photos of Kennedy’s brain; and finally, after an hour, Stone’s film and the David Ferrie group’s connection to Oswald, which doesn’t play any better after 30 years, despite Donald Sutherland stepping in on the VO at that juncture.
Like I said, it’s very watchable and entertaining — I’ve just revisited another Stone dog’s breakfast, Any Given Sunday, for my Dennis Quaid podcast, and as sweatily overdirected as they are, Stone joints ain’t boring — but the problem with this documentary, and with the original JFK, and with Garrison’s miles of red string seeming to connect things but actually just being tangled is the same as it ever was. The Warren Report is certainly a compromised document, but many of the can’t-prove-a-negative theories involving the CIA, Cuba, Dulles, and the Vietnam war machine track way too far in the other direction, investing esoteric coincidence with scientific significance. It’s like using a Magic 8-Ball to investigate a cold case: it’s fun, and the thing might throw you the right answer by happenstance, but this isn’t a game. You’re accusing the intelligence community of multiple homicides. And I’m sure they’re guilty of multiple homicides, but if you’re going to step to them with this one, you’d better have a bigger gun than — no shit — an ophthalmologist who wrote a book on forensic wound tracks. And you’d better at least acknowledge the Mortal Error theory, even if you don’t buy it.
That said, if you subscribe to Showtime/can watch this on the app thanks to a cable subscription, I recommend this one. The visuals are compelling; the theories, while often bananas, aren’t especially difficult to follow; and it offers what I think are relevant insights into meta ideas about true crime, like the power of attractive packaging and an authoritative narrator to sell a given version of a case. — SDB
Got JFK case recs? That can include a recommendation not to read or watch the material in question (hi, Frame 313); step over to our discussion thread from a couple years back, or just leave a comment! — SDB
Could I have better spent JFK Revisited’s runtime burying my nose in a Wellesley prof’s book on how to balance great art and despicable artists in our consumption? Sure, but I gotta be me (I also spent time I should have been cleaning my office yesterday watching The Godfather for the 296th time). That said, I hope some sweet Santa buys me Erich Hatala Matthes’s Drawing the Line: What to Do with the Work of Immoral Artists from Museums to the Movies, which came out a few weeks ago. Erin L. Thompson went deep on the debate in their review for Hyperallergic:
Matthes reassures readers that our individual consumer choices won’t make enough of a financial difference to a living artist to put us on ethically problematic grounds. The same goes for re-watching your old DVD of Manhattan or checking out Gauguin’s paintings of Tahitian women. He compares these choices to climate change: boycotting these artists, like composting food scraps, might feel good … but neither is going to resolve issues that need collective, structural solutions.
Yet, even if engaging with an artwork isn’t wrong, per se, Matthes makes a clear case that we can trip up in the way we engage. Our public consumption of art can signal, even if unintentionally, approbation of its creators’ heinous acts. And since “you can’t drive around blasting R. Kelly on your stereo and yell to each individual person that you pass: ‘I do not condone R. Kelly’s behavior! This song just slaps!,’” he suggests you put on your headphones to listen instead.
That quote from Matthes’s book sold me, because many’s the time I’ve had James Brown wailing out of the car stereo at a stoplight and felt that urge to explain to those in the crosswalk. And of course I don’t have to explain, because: it’s James Brown. But at the same time, I do, because: it’s James Brown.
Brooklyn Public Library doesn’t have this one yet but I might go ahead and buy it for review. Anyone else read it/waiting on Hanukkah Harriet to hook them up? — SDB
Amber “Say It Ain’t So, Joe” Sealey booked a DB Cooper joint. Sealey, the director of recent Bundy-profile docudrama No Man Of God, got into it with Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost; reading the comments) earlier this year, or rather Berlinger got into it with her. That set-to, coupled with Berlinger directing every true-crime project in sight, may have overshadowed Sealey’s actual work, but on the heels of last week’s announcement that Berlinger’s mixed bag, Crime Scene, will return for a second season, Sealey got a mic drop of her own: she’s back behind the camera for a DB Cooper docudrama. This one’s got a slightly different focus from other takes, per Deadline:
The thriller heading into production next year will tell the true story of the relationship between heroic NWA stewardess Tina Mucklow, the mysterious hijacker known as DB Cooper, and the only unsolved case of air piracy in the history of commercial aviation.
In order to be able to bring the story to the screen, Joey McFarland (Apple’s upcoming Emancipation) acquired the life rights of both Mucklow and Bill Rataczak, who co-piloted NWA Flight 305. Each is involved with the project as a consultant.
The fiftieth anniversary of the skyjacking is in just a couple of days, and this kind of announcement is the best we can hope for — not yet another claim to have solved the mystery, which just isn’t ever happening, but a project to look forward to that tries to set the scene instead of crack the case. — SDB
Sarah Maslin Nir has an excellent piece in the Times about the deadly rise of fentanyl, what she calls the third wave of the opioid epidemic. The piece is a briskly written overview of what the overdose-death numbers of the last 12 months tell us; how the pandemic affected this particular supply chain; what fentanyl is, exactly, and why it’s so universally dangerous for both casual drug users and the more misues-disordered; and how the first two waves of the opioid crisis brought us here. A snip:
As borders were closed to thwart the coronavirus, cartels created stockpiles, leading to a spike, said Bridget G. Brennan, New York City’s special narcotics prosecutor.
At the same time, several drug dealers said in interviews, domestic dealers turned to fentanyl as a cheap way to bulk out thin wares.
As lockdowns lifted and border crossings began to normalize, fentanyl flooded in. In just the first six months of 2021, the special prosecutor’s office confiscated more than in any previous year.
Since 2018, fentanyl seizures by the New York D.E.A. have tripled, as confiscated heroin fell by more than half. The drug agency in New York says it has taken 1,099 kilograms of fentanyl off the street so far in 2021, compared with just 434 kilograms of heroin.
Enforcement is on high alert: Whenever fentanyl circulation goes up, Ms. Brennan said, overdose deaths inevitably do too.
I think you see this more frequently now than, say, 5-10 years ago, but I was struck by the broadness of the range of interviewees — not just law enforcement and “establishment” people intoning with a lot of 50-cent words about what they’ve deduced from the statistics, but the lived experiences of recovering addicts, former and current dealers, and incarcerated people who became activists after bootleg fentanyl decimated their cellblocks. Not a super-long read and well worth your time. — SDB
delves into “parts of the story that haven’t been heard before, including recent developments and first-hand accounts from sources who are speaking out for the first time.” Past employees — not only retail consultants who were scammed, but also warehouse workers and designers — will be featured in the documentary.
Not sure if this is a necessary addition for you cult/MLM case-heads, but Left/Right Productions does have some serious credits (like multiple Frontlines), so let us know if you plan to check it out. Trailer’s below! — SDB
You won’t have to wait nearly as long for The Real Housewife and the Shah Shocker, a Hulu/ABC News joint that hits the streamer in a week. If you need a quick catch-up on what Real Housewife of SLC Jen Shah is alleged to have done to merit a true-crime doc, People tucks an explainer into their release write-around. And if you need THAT trailer, here it is!
This is another one that strikes me as superfluous, albeit for a different reason — not sure there’s much else to say until the case goes to trial (and while that’s currently slated for March 2022, who knows) — and based on the People piece, there’s a lot of people straining for witticisms in the talking-heads. If you want to try it and see, it hits Hulu November 29. — SDB
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This week on Best Evidence: The City of Angels, a Vox acquisition, and crimes against taste (so to speak).