Where Were You When Kennedy Was Shot?

Over the last fifty years, this question has become a cultural cliché—and a much longer lived cliché than most.  But, as we have now celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination, it seems poignantly obvious that that cliché will continue to have currency only for a few more decades, until the last of those who remember the event themselves pass away.

But, perhaps not entirely. The cliché has so rooted itself in the popular culture of the second half of the twentieth century that it may endure as a sort of historical footnote to our times.

To provide just one small example, one of my favorite films is Night Moves. Released in 1975, the film starred Gene Hackman and was directed by Arthur Penn. Like some of Hackman’s other fine performances of the period, his work in this film tends to be overshadowed by the acclaim for his portrayal of police detective Popeye Doyle in The French Connection. Likewise, among Arthur Penn’s films, Night Moves is clearly overshadowed by Bonnie and Clyde, in which Hackman has a supporting role as Clyde Barrow’s brother Buck.

I am clearly in the minority on this opinion, but I think that Hackman’s performance in Night Moves is every bit as good, and arguably even better, than his performance in The French Connection. And I think that Penn’s direction of this very complex film has been under-appreciated. My opinion of the film does, however, echo that of Dennis Schwartz, who has described it as “a seminal modern noir work from the 1970s” and has asserted that it is “arguably the best film that Arthur Penn has ever done.”

In the trailer for Night Moves, which is available on YouTube, it is clear that the producers and distributors of the film were trying to market it as an action film, another hardboiled crime thriller in the mode of The French Connection. But Night Moves has nothing in it like the landmark car chase under the elevated train tracks in The French Connection. Night Moves is a character-driven, rather than a plot-driven, film. In fact, as Bruce Jackson points out in an excellent essay in Senses of Cinema, the plot of Night Moves does not so much build as dissolve.

The film is an extended study of the character whom Hackman portrays, a former professional football player named Harry Moseby who is now making a living as a private investigator. Moseby’s marriage is falling apart (Susan Clark plays his estranged wife). She thinks that Harry is too emotionally reserved and, paradoxically, in too little control of his emotions when he does express them. She believes that the root of his problem is that his father abandoned his mother and him shortly after his birth and he has been haunted for his entire life by fundamental questions about his personal identity.

His wife asserts that he has become a private investigator in order to find answers, but that explanation is actually too simple. Harry has become a private investigator because the process of trying to find answers has become the defining aspect of his existence, the crux of his character. Tellingly, after he retired from professional football, he devoted a great deal of energy to tracking down his father, but once he found his father, now an old man, he never said anything to him. He simply sat across from him in a park and watched him read the newspaper, quietly mouthing the words that he was reading. When he later told his wife the story, he knew that telling the story as it actually occurred would raise more issues than it addressed, so he, instead, described the meaningful reconnection that he might have experienced with his father but had pointedly avoided having. And this incomplete reunion with his long-departed father provides, in effect, the template for Harry’s subsequent work as a private investigator.

So, although in almost all detective stories, the meaning is in the resolution, in what is revealed as the truth and in the ways that the surviving characters have to accommodate that truth, the engagement in the process is, for Harry, more important than the resolution because for him the “case” is, in effect, never closed. And so, in this instance, he keeps following the “clues” and his suspicions long after he has been paid for ostensibly wrapping up the “case.” And, very importantly, he does so, not because the revelation of the “truth” is necessary for any ethical reason but, rather, because the pursuit of the “truth” is what sustains him. He is the existential detective, the relentless pursuer of meaning in a world that he knows, at a visceral level, is meaningless. He is like a shark that cannot stop swimming simply because if it does stop swimming, it will die.

Fittingly, the film is full of marvelous vignettes that never add up to a complete story. At one point, Harry is in the Florida Keys, staying in a cottage owned by Tom Iverson, whose daughter Harry has been trying to locate. Tom lives with a woman named Paula (played by Jennifer Warren) who is beautiful in a very earthy way but has clearly seen enough of the world to have few remaining illusions about it. Earlier in the day, Harry has come uncomfortably close to uncovering a smuggling operation that they are involved in, and so that night, while Tom is trying to conceal the evidence of the smuggling operation, Paula is dispatched to Harry’s cottage to seduce Harry in order to insure that he won’t interfere with what Tom is doing.

Paula finds Harry “playing” a game of chess on a portable board, trying to defeat a classic strategy. The light from the single lamp in Harry’s room seems at once somewhat garish against and almost swallowed by the deep surrounding darkness. Paula stands languorously at the screen door in a long, diaphanous negligee and blatantly tries to seduce Harry. But it is as if the two of them are playing out a scene in a play that they don’t really find credible.

Finally, as the seduction seems about to wither from lack of any emotional momentum, Paula asks Harry, “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” And, after a brief pause, Harry answers with the question, “Which Kennedy?”

And, paradoxically, that exchange actually creates a genuine sense of connection between these two people who are not so much jaded as detached, even from themselves–and who are, therefore, long past any hope of getting lost in the romance of even the moment.

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