Friday, November 22, 2013

Penny Thoughts ‘13—The Umbrella Man (2011) ****

NR, 7 min.
Director: Errol Morris
Featuring: Josiah “Tink” Thompson

I’ve never dwelled much on the assassination of JFK. It’s not something that ever gained my fascination in the way it does many people. Certainly, I’m a fan of Oliver Stone’s film, but beyond that the only time I ever seem to think about it is every November 22, when everyone rolls the conspiracy theories back out for the anniversary. This year is the 50th.

I had a friend when I was young who introduced me to all the facts of the case—the Zapruder film, Lee Harvey Oswald, the magic bullet theory, the sequence of shots, Dealey Plaza. I don’t think I ever learned a thing about that fateful day for our country from a history book. What does that say about the value we place on rumor above fact in this country?

Two years ago, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris posted the short film “The Umbrella Man”, in the Op-Doc section of the New York Times website. In the 6 minute interview he talks with Josiah “Tink” Thompson, author of the definitive Kennedy assassination book “6 Seconds in Dallas”, about one detail of the incidents that occurred November 22, 1963 in Dealey Plaza—the Umbrella Man. I’m sure this was a detail my friend had told me about as well, but I had forgotten it until I stumbled upon Morris’s documentary this week. Why was a man carrying an open umbrella in Dealey Plaza on a perfectly sunny day with no bad weather in the forecast standing at the very point in the caravan’s procession where the shots started to rein on the POTUS limo? It’s a good question.

Thompson starts out talking about a theory of one of his colleagues that any piece of history, when put under a microscope, will reveal any number of strange details that seem unexplainable but by sinister reasons. Thompson, like most of Morris’s interview subjects, is quite a character. He makes funny little falsetto noises to express his amazement. He gives the impression, almost from the start of the movie, that he sees conspiracy theories as a whole lot of white smoke with no flames at their source. But, he doesn’t dismiss them outright, which is probably what made him a good investigator of the case. He explores one of the more far-fetched theories about the Umbrella Man here in the film.

He also reveals the surprisingly non-sinister explanation that was provided by the real Umbrella Man to the Warren Commission, which goes a good way toward proving his friend’s theory about history correct; but I’ll leave that for you to discover in the movie. I suppose movies often suffer the same fate as history when put under the microscopes of critics such as myself. Sometimes we dig so deep we come up with theories that are much more complex and heavy than the filmmakers intend. So in that way I’m very much like the conspiracy theorists who I don’t really follow on the JFK assassination in particular. It seems to me, however, that Morris’s point here is that sometimes a man with an umbrella is just a man with an umbrella.

Watch the movie at the New York Times website.

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