Errol Morris’ take on the JFK Assassination, “Umbrella Man” is A Cautionary Tale of Non-Conspiracy.

I am a big fan of Errol Morris‘ New York Times Opinionator Blog where the documentary filmmaker can burn through 15000 words on the placement of some cannon balls on a road in Crimea in the 19th century, or about the absurdity of a man trying to make himself invisible to bank security cameras by putting lemon juice on his face. Thus, his step up to making short films for the NYT is too good to wait for Friday’s “Shorts Programme” regular feature.

Morris’ visual essay, or rather his interotronning of an academic who wrote the wrote the definitive book on the Zapruder film, Josiah “Tink” Thompson, focuses on one one of the strange facts in the JFK assassination – a man holding an open umbrella on a beautiful sunny day, mere meters from where the President was shot. It is riveting stuff — OK, if you use Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel on the soundtrack everything is riveting by default.

I adore Tink’s simple thesis on this man with the umbrella as a greater look at evidence, truth, and reality of history which might just be the most succinct summation of Errol Morris’ entire documentary career: “If you put any event under a microscope, you will find a whole dimension of completely weird, incredible things going on. It is as if there is the macro level of historical research where things sort of obey the natural laws and the usual things happen and unusual things don’t happen, and then there is this other level where everything is just really weird.”

The Umbrella Man is a cautionary tale of non-conspiracy.

The 6.5 minute short is tucked under the seat.

 

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rot
Guest

I haven’t seen this yet, I hope he is not going down the path that Herzog did recently and say Oswald killed Kennedy, or that the idea of conspiracy around this has to do with wild imagination more than fact. To imply that weird things happen at the micro level and that is some justification for inconsistencies of fact really pisses me off. You need to use your full capacity to evaluate the legitimacy of the claims not some pat notion of ‘that’s just the way it goes’. It is very complex, there are a lot of theories because it is so complex, and you don’t necessarily have to believe one in particular, but nip it in the bud early on: there is no way Oswald was the lone assassin, and so barring that there is a cover-up of the highest order.

essential reading:

JFK, The CIA, Vietnam and the Plot to Assassinate Kennedy – Fletcher Prouty

JFK and the Unspeakable – James W Douglass (which I think was published this year, so most up-to-date information)

also History channel has an awesome 9 part documentary called
The Men Who Killed Kennedy which is great too. They even talk to Woody Harrelson’s dad, who was considered by some to be one of the hobos that were photographed then vanished. The doc really saturates in the conspiracy lore. The most authentic account, and to do one’s homework, is to read Prouty’s book mentioned above… Prouty served as Chief of Special Operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President John F. Kennedy, so if ever there was an inside man who might know more than speculations on umbrella dude, I think he is it.

Also I saw Ebert tweeting something downplaying the significance of Oliver Stone’s JFK to which I then recommend anyone questioning what it has to offer to buy the book Stone published on the film, that goes line by line through the dialogue and sources everything, with an introduction by Prouty endorsing it. Stone has always been on record that he had used dramatic license in telling the story, it is not a documentary, some elements are conflated together for the sake of telling a story, but the essential fact-dropping he stands by. Again, you don’t have to believe the whole story Stone makes up pinning the conspiracy on Clay Shaw, I don’t entirely, the key point is there was a conspiracy (it is not just that weird shit happens, which could then excuse every murder scene throughout history).

rot
Guest

Umbrella Man is way down the list of weird stuff on that day, I only know of him from a quick mention in the History channel doc. The story about Lucien Sarti and the photograph of the grassy knoll where they show three figures and then pinpoint who they are and interview them in that same documentary, that is some fascinating shit. Not saying I believe it, but of everything surrounding this story, that element is awesome to watch unfold in the doc.

Bob Turnbull
Admin

“If you have any fact which you think is really sinister…you can never on your own think up all the non-sinister perfectly valid explanations for that fact”

Beautiful.

rot
Guest

that also applies to the blanket skepticism of conspiracy theories… a self-refuting beauty. This is why I say do away with the axioms and cute turns of phrase that try to convict a point of view before the evidence has been laid out. It is about a web of evidence weighed against one’s capacity to glean probability out of it.

That same quote indicts the West Memphis Three in Paradise Lost docs, because what they imply is a sinister conspiracy all the way through the police force. Better to keep one’s mind at peace knowing the law is just, and kids that dress in black are the perfectly valid explanation for the murders.

Bob Turnbull
Admin

To be clear though Mike, the passage I quoted doesn’t say that the fact can’t be sinister – just that people love to jump to those conclusions since they may think they’ve covered off every other possible angle. It’s one of many pitfalls we all have to avoid when looking for “the truth”.

rot
Guest

another point, and not directed at you directly Bob, but in general:

I am sick of the appeal to the status quo as some kind of arbiter of truth. It is this same appeal that got us in the financial mess we are in presently, assuming Wall St has everyone’s best interests in hand and wouldn’t let things go too far, banks know money, we can trust them. Governments in the Middle East use undemocratic tactics like shutting down social networks during riots and excessive police force to silence protests, but here, we got democracy, that sort of thing doesn’t happen here. The myth of the self-made man, the American Dream, you know, that 1%. This faith in macro-level concepts that at their base are selfish and unfocused is at the heart of a lot of problems we face today. Question everything and don’t be afraid of the taboos, if your argument is sound it doesn’t matter which side of the line you are on. Sinister things DO happen, to treat that as taboo and in anyway discourage thoughtful reflection on that is in my mind ethically wrong. You discourage by considered counter-argument, not by the verbal equivalent of waving one off with your hand.

rot
Guest

key part of the quote is “on your own” – discerning truth is not something you do on your own, it is a matter of argument and counter argument and then from them forming a probability of truth based on the facts.

Andrew James
Admin

Donald Sutherland mentions the umbrella man in “JFK.” I think Eastwood might mention it in “In the Line of Fire” as well.

Bob Turnbull
Admin

Totally agree with your last comment Mike – “on your own” is indeed the key part of that quote. I think that’s where Morris is aiming as a general concept (certainly not towards anything status quo).

rot
Guest

Like I said, I still haven’t listened to the clip, so I am going on Bob’s quote

“If you have any fact which you think is really sinister…you can never on your own think up all the non-sinister perfectly valid explanations for that fact”

Implicit in that quote (taken out of context) is that the less sinister viewpoint is all too often neglected, the less sinister viewpoint is synonymous with the status-quo (the opposite of sinister is normal). That was my reasoning for talking about the status-quo, but not directly an attack on Morris, more general frustration around the topic of conspiracies.

Donald Sutherland in JFK is Fletcher Prouty, whom I was talking about before. His book is phenomenal, and to me, the most convincing argument for a conspiracy ever articulated.

rot
Guest

I am at work and do not have the liberty to watch clips. I work too hard.

Andrew James
Admin

Great, now instead of watching Krull on Netflix, I’m watching Kennedy assassination documentaries on YouTube:

http://youtu.be/DPjpd90Z9rg

rot
Guest

No, this feels like pretend I am spending quality time with my kid while actually looking at my ipad kind of viewing. 6.5 minutes is just about the amount of time I can convince Hayden I am involved in his lego activity.

Andrew, make sure it is the history channel one, but it is like 4 or 5 hours long. And Sutherland does mention the umbrella guy, and it is lifted from a passage directly in Prouty’s book if I remember, but it was more that there were a series of security protocol transgressions all at once which is hard to believe, and the umbrella was one of many issues. You can excuse a stray umbrella, the odd open window, but if you follow the evidence with the security crew in prior events you see how unrealistic it is that the lapses in security at the time were weird coincidences. By the fifth or six significant change to protocol alarm bells should start to go off.

Rot
Guest

Saw the clip, as he says cautionary tale to assuming to know all the implications of a fact. Sinister or otherwise.

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Andrew James
Guest

So we started reading the new Stephen King novel about stopping the JFK assassination. I haven’t read a King book since getting halfway through “Gerald’s Game” back in… what, 93 or 94?

Anyway, about 150 pages in and so far it’s pretty awesome. Stephen King’s take on time travel and the grandfather paradox. Love it.

Rot
Guest

Plan to read over christmas, JFK + time travel is my ultimate sweet spot

Andrew James
Admin

Brush up on your Stephen King rot. I know King is famous for this, but going back to 1950’s Derry, there are a ton of tie-ins with some of his other stories. So far I’ve made direct connections with: “The Langoliers,” “It,” “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” “Stand By Me,” “The Stand” and “Christine.” I’m waiting for others to show up as well. There are quite a few King books I’ve not read so there are probably other connections that I’m not even seeing! It’s fun!

Rick Vance
Guest

That is totally the plot of the second volume of the comic Umbrella Academy. Its good fun.

Ms Curious
Guest

Stephen King! Please. The man’s a great storyteller but he can’t write. Andrew…he’s ‘a great story teller’!!! No wonder there are so many ‘tie-ins’…that’s his forte. Conversely, probably the reason that to date none of his works are studied in university Literature units (much to his annoyance). Terribly written, clumsy sentence structures and so much appropriation it’s not funny. Just look at ‘Black House’ (or should I say Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’). This guy really needs to get out and get a little more original (or maybe actually attend university). His writing on the whole is so 80’s!

Loved ‘Misery’ as a film, but as a book …well it sucked! The writing was seriously very poor. Here’s a case of imagination surpasssing literary prowess! On the whole King translates well to film, but I wouldn’t read too much into anything he writes. In my opinion he’s a writer who knows little about sub-text!

A great story teller! That’s about it for King! He’ll never get his wish to have his works studied at any university level!

As a writer, he’s commercially viable for sure.. Worthy of study…I think not!

rot
Guest

about 60 pages into 11/22/63 and am loving its cut to the chase Twilight Zone vibe, and King’s twist on time travel. Apparently Jonathan Demme is writing, directing and producing the film adaptation.

Andrew James
Admin

Yup we’re about halfway home and it’s pretty great so far.

Ms. Curious, I don’t think I ever claimed King to be the height of intellectual stimulation. But I take umbrage with your dismissive tone. You’re right, he’s an awesome stroyteller and there’s nothing wrong with that in my opinion. I read Descartes and Stephen Hawking for that stuff. I want a good time travel story and I’ve got one here.

And I don’t think his writing is clumsy or “terribly written” – “This guy really needs to get out and get a little more original” – REALLY!? Original? And the Misery book (as a story) I think is better than the movie. Much more detail and much bloodier.

I didn’t know a book had to be studied in University to be considered worth a read. That excludes a helluva lot of stories that you’re never going to get to appreciate Ms. Curious. I feel bad for you.

rot
Guest

It is weird to read Stephen King again after so much time. From what I usually read this feels different, it is … like most genre… simplified storytelling, less ornament and more pleasure in the plot. I remember King being more descriptive prose crazy, that is why I find 11/22/63 refreshing so far, it is just get to what you want kind of writing. Feels more like Dean Koontz in that respect, who I also used to love a lot. Koontz, in fact had a time travel story about going back to kill Hitler, forget what it was called.

Andrew James
Admin

I don’t think it matters (entirely) how “well” it is written if it conveys emotion and setting and plotting very well. Re-read The Long Walk if you haven’t. The character complexities within that story are much deeper than I was first able to understand at age 14. Sure The Langoliers isn’t much in the way of intellect, but there are a few of his stories that get at some pretty interesting things.

rot
Guest

Earlier in the year I had tried to reread The Stand and got sidetracked… THAT is a different King than 11/22/63. I like him, just for me, there is so much I want to read that he is farther down the list, unless he is writing about JFK and time travel.

Jandy Hardesty
Admin

I’d also be very surprised if King is not studied in universities.

Matt Gamble
Guest

He is. He also has a college degree.

In other news, people should really be reading Joe Hill.

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