Richard Burt Duly Noted or Off the Record?

Con-Spirit-cies of the Law

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Con-Spirit-cies of the Law

To understand better how the secrecy of the law bears the divisibility of sovereignty, we need first to revise Jameson’s account of allegory. As we have already seen in All the President’s Men, allegory is not entirely mimetic; rather, it endlessly redivides whatever opposed categories it makes similar and parallel, creating through the wasting of notes, as it were, an irreducible semantic indeterminacy that allows for TOTALLY paranoid / historicist readings of the history represented by the conspiratorial film.17 Allegorical narratives depend for their completeness on missing evidence that takes the form of documents that are, like notes, always divisible. To make these points concretely, let me turn briefly to Oliver Stone’s conspiratorial film J.F.K. (1991), perhaps the most postmodern conspiratorial film Jameson could hope for, in which a single note figures in a single but central pre-trial scene. Jameson comments that Kennedy was the first media event (47). Allegorizing history by allegorizing the divisibility of media, J.F.K. tells the story of the failed prosecution of a Louisiana attorney named Jim Garrison (Kevin Kostner) that used the Abraham Zapruder film of Kennedy’s assassination as evidence in court. J.F.K. Even at the trial, the Zapruder film is not shown the jury continuously from start to finish. Instead Stone cuts away from the courtroom screening to people in it and then back to the film, which reedits to include footage, shot by Stone himself in different film stocks (8mm, 16 mm, 35mm) —just as the “Zapruder film” we see parts of at the beginning of film is cut up, consisting partly of footage shot by different people the day of the assassination and partly footage shot by Stone, again all in different film stocks, spliced or “bled” together in one sequence.

J.F.K. would seem to be a very postmodern film. It purports to tell the true story of the assassination, yet it undermines the notion of a single truth, distinct from fiction, by constantly alternating between color and black-and-white footage, often mixing them up in the same sequence. Consequently, one can’t always tell whether the black and white footage is speculative or authentic. Stone’s use of voice-over narration in court and in Garrison’s office when preparing for court puts even greater pressure on the truth-value of black and white footage. At one point, Garrison talks in voice-over as we see black and white footage of Oswald being caught in a movie theater. Here we get a truly self-reflexive moment in which a film appears projected in Stone’s film that might validate the power of film to provide evidence. Yet Stone shoots the sequence in such a harried way that the titles of the films are difficult to read on the marquee. This script says: "A double feature is playing -- Cry of Battle with Van Heflin and War is Hell. He goes in. . . . Inside the theater, Cry of Battle is on the screen." But because the marquee puts the name of the star Van Heflin below Cry of Battle and above War is Hell , we cannot be sure unless we have seen the films if Van Heflin acts in both films or only one of them.

Instead of providing clear evidence of the authenticating and evidential power of film, Stone leaves his audience wondering if this part up of the film is fiction or if Oswald really was caught at a movie theater showing this exact double bill.18 The uncertainty Stone creates doesn’t really matter, however. The genius of his film lies in the way it shows how any attempt to arrive at the truth through legal means will take the form of conspiracy theory. The law depends on mediatized evidence that is always haunted by a “spirit” of speculative reasoning, a spirit that is infinitely divisible and infinitely divides the referent effect it produces (spectrally).

Nowhere is the total deconstruction and divisibility of media more evident in the film than when it takes up a note. Garrison makes his first conclusion on the basis of a story about a note left by Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) that was later destroyed. The story of the note is told as if in flashback (except that it is not subjective) in black and white. Stone then cuts to the pre-trial scene, in color, with Garrison speculating on the note’s content, his proof that it described the assassination being its destruction: What’s not there produces what is there. Totally. Yet what is missing, the note, has it be singular, indivisible for Stone to be able to cinematically make the audience wonder what is authentic history in J.F.K. and what is unproven speculation. The singularity of the note makes it possible to insert in a single scene as well. Moreover, the note has to have been destroyed, its “existence” relayed orally through rumor, for the film’s narrative of a conspiracy to become narratable. Because it is permanently indivisible, the (fantasy of a destroyed) note left grounds an otherwise irreducible divisibility in legal reasoning that makes speculative reasoning impossible to tell apart from psychotic “un-reasoning.”

Strangely enough, J.F.K.’s formal inconsistencies--cutting between color and black and white film, different film stocks, and so on—undercut the mimetic allegory Stone wants to narrate. With the exception of the note, the divisibility of media is the condition of Stone’s allegorical myth-making. The restoration of the referent through its destruction or recutting enables Stone to allegorize and mythologize Kennedy as the Oedipal father whose murder enabled the bad “son” President Lyndon B. Johnson to escalate the Vietnam War just as Kennedy was supposedly going to withdraw troops. Similarly, Jameson can restore the “social totality” as a postmodern, structural problem of representation: the increasing invisibility of new media makes them increasingly powerful. Oliver Stone’s anti-mimetic allegory of total conspiracy theorizing remains as strong and as weak as Jameson’s mimetic allegorical theory of totality as conspiracy. In J.F.K, Stone cuts up filmed history in order to recut extra-cinematic history: the allegorical economy of his film lies in making the notion of one authentic, original film invalid in order to validate a mythologized referent, the legend of J.F.K as it were: the film’s narrative stands in for the fragments of film shown in it. All the President’s Men reaches a similar end (the myth of journalism as the Fourth Estate preserving the Republic) through different cinematic means.

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