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November 22, 1963: Zapruder’s Viewfinder

An excerpt from Adam Braver’s novel, November 22, 1963

The Bell & Howell 414 DP Discovery Series
Movie Camera.

Thoroughly reading the user’s manual will ensure that the camera captures what it sees in the most accurate way.

Start with the basics:

»    How to operate the Start button (Page 7)
»    Loading the film (Page 2)
»    The Zoomatic lens (Pages 5, 6, 10)
»    Electric Eye operation (Page 8)
»    Built-in filters (Page 4)
»    Zoomatic Viewfinder (Page 5)

And make sure to read the tips:

»    “Don’t zoom too much. Like any good technique, it will be most effective when used sparingly.” (Page 11)

»    “If your fingers block the Electric Eye when you shoot, your camera will not ‘see’ things in their proper light. Don’t confuse the camera. Make sure it sees everything.” (Page 12)

»    “Try to plan your movies so that they’ll tell a story with continuity and interest . . . Once you’re familiar with the Electric Eye camera you can take thrilling automatic movies you’ll always be proud to show.” (Page 9)

It’s all about resisting the temptation to control the camera. To think it can see what you see. Because that’s where the whole process can falter. Forgetting that the camera acts as its own witness.

The Interview.

About an hour and a half after the shooting, Abe Zapruder is in the studios of WFAA-TV. He is seated at a desk next to Jay Watson, the station’s program director, who is not used to being in front of the camera. Watson smokes furiously, his attention scattered, taking phone calls on the air while simultaneously introducing his guest. There’s barely an inch between them. Initially Abe looks comfortable in his jacket and bow tie, as though he’s hosting his own television show. Still, he swivels as he talks. It’s in his eyes. Where the composure starts to wilt.

Watson asks, “Would you tell us your story, please, sir?” and Abe starts at a half hour before the shooting. Talks about finding the spot. Clears his throat. And he hears the shot. Models how Kennedy slumped. In describing the next gunshot (I couldn’t say if it was one or two), he says he saw Kennedy’s “head practically open up, all blood and everything, and I kept on shooting. That’s about all, I’m just sick, I can’t . . .” Here you sense him breaking, but still there is an incompleteness to it all. There clearly is shock. Anguish. But it is deeper than that. As though part of his memory is in that camera.

Maybe sensing this, Watson reminds Abe that they do have the movie camera in the studio, and “We’ll try to get that processed and have it as soon as possible.” Then the station cuts to coverage of the hearse leaving Parkland Memorial Hospital. This is the collective memory. The real-time experience. And, in the interview, you can almost see Abe contemplate trying to hang on to his memories. Somehow knowing that once the film is developed, his memory will become part of the collective. A commonplace experience. Maybe that’s why he ends the interview the way he does. Brings it back to the first blast, when he still thought it was a joke, like when you “hear a shot and somebody grabs their stomach.” Maybe that’s all he has left. Something no film footage will co-opt. That little bit of shame is all his.


Just forty years ago in the Ukraine, Abraham Zapruder was watching his neighbors and fellow Jews being terrorized and slaughtered during the Russian civil war. The Zapruder family escaped because the fight would be futile; an escape that he remembers as both cowardly and brave. They emigrated from Kovel to Brooklyn when he was fifteen. At thirty-six, Abe left Brooklyn for Dallas to found his own dress-manufacturing business, two floors’ worth. Abe is a man who recognizes hope and opportunity when he sees it. He knows it can come in all sorts of disguises. How the unexpected moments can be the ones that most inspire you.

On Elm.

Kennedy was riding on his side of the street. Leaning forward. Smiling. Waving. For just one second, Abe wanted to lower the camera and see the president with his own eyes. But he was determined to capture Kennedy. He was glad he’d brought the camera. He had not intended to. It would only get in the way of seeing the president. That’s what he’d told Lillian, his secretary at Jennifer Juniors. The reason he gave her. He wanted to see Kennedy for himself. Not just steady a camera that was doing the actual seeing. Lillian convinced him otherwise. Told him he had time to go home to get the camera. Twenty minutes round trip, tops. Seven miles each way. She told him he must have been a mind reader to open his dress business on Elm Street. Front row seats for the Kennedys, Mr. Z. Make use of it. He’ll be glad to have this memory. Go on, Lillian kept at him. She got his other receptionist, Marilyn, in on it. Really, Mr. Z, they went on.

He thought about traffic. About parking. How with the expected mob coming downtown, twenty minutes could turn into hours. But it was just a little past eight. He supposed he had time, even in the worst-case scenario. Plus it would be something to have a movie of Kennedy. Think about your grandchildren, Mr. Z. It’s the Kennedys, Mr. Z. Isn’t this just the thing you bought the camera for? And they started to get to him, Lillian and Marilyn. This would be the story to tell his future generations. Not of pogroms or daring yet ambivalent escapes. Rather, of when he was just feet away from John F. Kennedy.

The day had started rainy and hazy, lighting that would complicate any filming. If it did start to pour, would he switch to the Haze Filter, or just leave the Type A all the way out? It wouldn’t make for much of a movie, having to film through all the umbrellas, not to mention that the president likely would be covered up in his car, just waving through the window. But those concerns were soon lost. The sun came out, and, as quickly, the day turned more springlike. The Kennedys bring sunshine wherever they go, one of the office gals said. Abe smiled. He was not one for platitudes. But he did believe it.

Rushing out of the Dal-Tex Building at 501 Elm Street, Abe and Marilyn crossed the street, sidestepping their way through the School Book Depository employees that had crowded the sidewalk. He moved quickly. Glancing back at the route. Seeing it as though he were the camera lens. Looking for the right perspective. The best angle. With Marilyn still trailing, he continued down Elm, toward the underpass. He checked his watch. Looked back up the street. Some other employees from Jennifer Juniors had caught up with them. But he didn’t talk to them. Just kept moving. Getting closer to the underpass.

Finally he found a big concrete square, nearly four feet high. He lassoed the camera to his wrist as he climbed up. The sun was over his shoulder for ideal lighting. He checked his watch again. According to the published schedule, there were at least ten minutes to spare before the motorcade was due to pass through. He took a long breath and wiped the sweat off his forehead.

He pointed the camera at his employees, reviewing the user’s manual in his head. They looked at him. Smiled. One shaded her face, turning her back to him. I’m just testing, he said. Running a few frames to make sure she’s working okay. He zoomed in on them. Standing on the grass. A marble slab in the background. He pushed the Start button. Listened for the clicking. Moved the zoom in, moved the zoom out. He called to Marilyn once he stopped. Can you stand behind me? he asked. I don’t know why, but this telephoto lens spins my head a bit. Makes me dizzy. If you can just stand behind me. Maybe hold my coattail to keep me balanced. And together they stood there. Looking up Elm toward Houston. Waiting for the limousine to make the turn.

The next thing he knew he was yelling out, They killed him. They killed him. Running up the grassy knoll. Toward the pergola. They killed him. They killed him. His body screamed. His mind couldn’t make sense. A moment ago Kennedy had been clowning around. And now. They killed him. He didn’t even know how he got off the abutment. He was ghostlike. Walking through walls. Through people. Calling out, chanting, They killed him. They killed him.

What’s happening? people asked him. What’s happening?

They killed him. And each time he said it, it seemed another person wilted and fell away.

The camera still hung from his wrist. It banged against his thigh. Hitting the same place over and over. Pummeling him black and blue.

At the Dal-Tex Building.

Abe slumps forward on his desk. The television news is playing. The movie camera sits on top of the filing cabinet. It’s unfairly still.

Somewhere there is a breath in his chest.

Darwin Payne from the Times Herald is in his office. Sitting across from him, talking with his hands. Payne will help him get the film developed, he says. This movie is that important. But Abe can barely speak, other than to say he knows Kennedy is dead. He knows he’s dead. The TV news anchors can say what they want. They can talk hopefully about wounds—even serious wounds—but Abe knows Kennedy is dead. He saw it through the viewfinder.

Finally he gathers the strength to brush Payne away, explaining that someone from Life contacted him first, and though he doesn’t know what is what, he is a man of his word. As he closes the door behind Payne, Abe’s not sure if the film is news, commerce, or evidence. At this point, it’s physiology and technology. The rest of the people there witnessed the moment of the killing, and then that quickly it was gone. But Abe Zapruder has a record of what his eye saw. It’s sitting on his file cabinet. Waiting to be processed. A visual replica of his memory. And, looking up at the camera again, he considers just popping open the door and exposing the film. A drastic surgical remedy.

Lillian walks in, saying something he can’t hear. Something about government men. Waiting. She’s walking with a transistor radio in her hand. It’s static and chaos. She’s crying, sniffling while she pats at her pockets for a tissue. She says the men are in the outer office, and then she reports that the radio just said the president is only wounded, to which Abe replies, I know he’s dead. Lillian eyes the TV and then turns up the radio, trying to make out more announcements through the static.

Abe stands to greet the government men. For a moment disoriented. Confused between the noise outside the window and the sounds on the radio and the TV. He could close his window, but somehow it’s reassuring, hearing the sirens, and hearing all those people still milling in the plaza. Hearing their moans and their cries. He is a little less alone.

A True Story.

The night of November 22, Abe had a nightmare that he was walking through Times Square. There he passed a barker standing in front of some unsavory movie house. The barker called out, “Hey folks, come on in and see the president killed on the big screen.”

The Screening

By 8 am on November 23, Abe is showing the film to Secret Service agents. It’s an empty room on one of his floors in the Dal-Tex Building. There are no windows. No screen. Only a couple of folding chairs and a card table set up in the middle to hold the projector. The overhead lights are off, just the projector’s white light beaming a small but distinct square on the blank white wall.

The fan on the projector whirrs. Almost like a jet engine.

Abe stands beside it and asks, Are you ready, gentlemen?

Ready, Mr. Zapruder.

He fiddles with the knobs, trying to sharpen the focus on the edges of the blank picture. Okay now, he says. So you are ready?

They nod, looking impatient, checking their watches, and documenting the time on their notepads. Abe knows they’re not really ready. He’s seen the film. Seen how the mind plays funny tricks. Experienced how the first twenty seconds fill you with hope and excitement. And there is still the strange possibility that what you know is going to happen may not happen. Yet it does. You realize how vague hope really is.

Abe starts the film. The reels on the 8 mm projector click just off the beat. Turning round and round, repetitious. The makeshift screen has filled in with black. Scratches animate across the wall, lightning storms, off as quickly as they are on.

The agents shift. One taps his foot in time with the projector.

There is a long leader on the film, even after cutting off the home movies and the test footage he’d made before the parade. Then, abruptly, it starts. Here come the motorcycle cops twisting onto Elm, leading the motorcade. The sun is shining. Here comes the president.

Another True Story.

By 10:30 am, after screening the twenty-four-second film over and over for various officials, Abe’s office is flooded with reporters wanting access to the film. They’re all speaking in controlled voices, guaranteeing something. But it is Richard Stolley, of Life, with whom he goes behind closed doors, despite the protests of the others. The garment industry is flat these days, he tells Stolley. Every year the business has been making its way closer to Mexico, and Dallas is as far south as Abe is willing to follow it. He worries for his family’s future. Tells Stolley he wants them be secure. Still, he doesn’t want to be part of exploiting the death of the president. The idea of being a profiteer seems shameful. Stolley reminds him that this is Life. Its reputation is its integrity. Stolley guarantees they’ll be prudent in how they use the film. This is now part of the story of America, and, like it or not, Abe’s film is one of the great documents of history. Through Stolley, Life pays $50,000 for the print rights. Two days later they pay an additional $100,000 for the original film, with payments to be disbursed annually at $25,000. Abe contributes the first payment to the Firemen’s and Policemen’s Benevolent Fund, with a donation suggestion for Mrs. J. D. Tippit. The balance goes to the Zapruder family’s future.

Frame 313.

A movie camera connects a series of still pictures. A series of small moments. And each frame is assigned a number. In the case of his film, it is frame 313. That is the one where Kennedy’s head bursts open. That sudden poof of red that is at once abstract and elliptical. Abe didn’t need to lose the whole memory. Just frame 313. If it could have just been edited out. Then the worst part of the day only would’ve been his disappointment at Kennedy fooling around like he’d been shot after the loud pop, before the limousine disappeared beneath the underpass on the way to the Trade Mart.

The Testimony.

Giving up the film was supposed to relieve him. But there are some days that he swears he sees it in his head. Starting up with the scratchy leader, and then right to the motorcade. And then it’s frame 313 over and over again. Backward and forward. Forward and backward. Until the motorcade disappears beneath the underpass. Some days it plays in his head several times. Sometimes only once or twice a week. But always the same pattern. Backward and forward. Forward and backward. And it occurs to him that his memory and the film are one and the same. That every time the film is studied in some Secret Service/FBI lab, or cut and spliced in New York at Life, it is somehow projecting through him.

By the time Abe is testifying for the Warren Commission, exactly eight months to the day have passed since he shot his film. Nearly down to the hour. He sits in the office of the U.S. attorney in Dallas, being questioned by Wesley Liebler, assistant counsel to the commission. Abe’s nervous. In a way, he seems more shaken than he was in the hours following the assassination. He can’t seem to get his words right. He knows what he’s thinking, but it just won’t translate. Maybe it’s that the shock has worn off. Now it’s an exposed wound.

Liebler is being gracious. Gentle. They start off with the background information. Abe tells him about not having the camera, going down to Elm Street, searching for the perfect spot until he found the concrete abutment. He’s thorough. Comfortable with the logic of these details.

But shortly the motorcade is in front of him, and Liebler is asking more pointed questions. Frame by frame. Bullet by bullet. As he did on WFAA, Abe confesses he thought Kennedy was joking after the first shot. After eight months, he sounds a little more practiced. Still, the shame remains. He goes on to say, “I heard a second shot and I saw his head opened up and the blood and everything came out and I started—I can hardly talk about it . . .” and he falls forward, dropping his face into his hands, sobbing. He looks up once or twice. Takes in a breath, holding it, trying to compose himself, and then starts crying again.

“That’s all right, Mr. Zapruder,” Liebler says. “Would you like a drink of water? Why don’t you step out of the room and have a drink of water?”

Abe doesn’t move. He looks up, trying to regain his posture, but unable to look Liebler in the eyes. Fixing his stare on a knot in the paneling. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m ashamed of myself really, but I couldn’t help it . . . The whole thing that has been transpiring . . . It was very upsetting, and as you see, I got a little better all the time, and this came up again . . . And . . . It, to me . . . Looked like a second shot.”

They resume the deposition, continuing to take the day apart, frame by frame. He answers steadily. Keeps on track. He wants to be useful. And when Liebler is ready to wrap things up, he lets Abe know how helpful the film has been to the commission. Abe nods. “I’m only sorry I broke down,” he says. “I didn’t know I was going to do it.”

Liebler thanks him. Repeats how helpful the film has been.

“Well, I’m ashamed of myself. I didn’t know I was going to break down, and for a man to . . . but it was a tragic thing, and when you started asking me that, and I saw the thing all over again, and it was an awful thing . . . an awful thing.”

And though they’ll forever call him helpful for what he did, he wishes he’d had nothing to offer. That he’d left the camera at home. Wishes he’d never even cared about Kennedy. Because, in the end, all this has done is brought him shame. For thinking the wrong thing when the first bullet struck. For feeling as though he were selling out the horror for profit, scrambling to donate a chunk of the money as fast as it came in. For breaking down with childish tears. Imagine that. A Ukrainian Jew who escaped the pogroms and terrors of the Russian civil war, who came to America and built himself into a businessman, just to become someone who can’t compose himself, all for what he saw through his viewfinder. At least he was able to provide for his family. For that he can feel no shame.

Adam Braver is the author of five novels, most recently Misfit. His books have been selected for the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers program, Borders’ Original Voices series, the IndieNext list, and twice for the Book Sense list, as well as having been translated into Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, and French. He is on faculty and writer-in-residence at Roger Williams University in Bristol, RI. In addition to having taught for the University of New Orleans’ Low Residency MFA program, he’s also been a regular writer-in-residence at the New York State Summer Writers Institute.

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