Film

Cinemadope: Mourning in America

A national loss in letters

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

As a boy, I heard many, many, times about the day my mother sat next to Bobby Kennedy at church. My mom, the daughter of a fisherman and a factory worker, was born and raised on the Massachusetts shore. She was both a Catholic school girl and an early advocate for women’s rights, and from early on she was a fan of the Kennedys. Sitting next to Bobby was like sitting next to the Pope and Elvis all rolled into one tousle-haired dreamboat.

In the years since, her appetite for Kennedy headlines has waxed and waned, but has never truly disappeared. It’s like that for much of her generation, it seems—cliched as it sounds, they really are the closest thing our country has to royalty, at least from the perspective of public interest. But for all the tabloid gossip, the passion for the clan was born at heart from a sense of shared ideals in a time of incredible social upheavals. This Thursday night, Amherst Cinema brings in a new film that reminds us all of the strength of those ideals, and just how deeply an American public felt connected to the new leader who promised to make those ideals a reality.

Letters to Jackie is director Bill Couturié’s ode to the time just after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. After that shocking day in Dallas, personal mail began flooding the White House—thousands upon thousands of envelopes addressed to the president’s widow, Jackie. The letters they contained were heartfelt condolences from a citizenry, offering comfort to a grieving wife and mother, and reassuring her that her husband’s good work would live on and that those who would turn to violence to get their way had already lost. His film pairs the text of those letters—voiced by actors like Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis, and Chris Cooper—with archival footage from the Kennedy era to evoke not just a lost time, but a feeling of hope and resilience that we could use still more of today.

Couturié calls Kennedy’s death a “tipping point in history” and notes that it was common for letter writers to tie the assassination to the president’s role in the civil rights struggle. “People—mostly black people—died in those days,” says Couturié. “There was a real war going on. No one ever dreamed our president would be one to die, too. I did not sit down to write a Civil Rights story, but that’s where the letters led me.”

Helping to shed light on the history is Dr. Ellen Fitzpatrick, a professor and political scholar, and the author of the book on which Couturié based his film. Now based in Newton, Fitzpatrick attended high school in Amherst was a member of Hampshire College’s first class; she returns to town to introduce the film and lead a Q&A about the material.

 

Also this week: In the world of jazz, Erroll Garner has pulled off a neat little trick. A virtuoso pianist, he has left his mark on the form and provided compositions that have become jazz standards (“Misty” is his most famous tune), yet his personality has never overshadowed his music—something not so many jazz greats can lay claim to. Now, filmmaker Atticus Brady takes the time to tell Garner’s story in No One Can Hear You Read, a short film about the legend coming to Amherst on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. Presented by NEPR jazz host Tom Reney, it dives into Garner’s 40-year career as well as his childhood in Pittsburgh and early days as an up and coming player in New York. Reney will discuss the film and Garner’s place in jazz history, and introduce a short live concert before the screening.

And finally, if you’re longing for some Halloween fun this week, there are two area showings of Night of the Living Dead. The first is a RiffTrax Live presentation at Hadley’s Cinemark Theaters on Thursday, Oct. 24, with a wisecracking cast from Mystery Science Theater 3000 offering a running commentary on the film as it happens. A week later—Halloween night—Easthampton’s free-admission theater Popcorn Noir hosts a more traditional screening at 7 p.m. Don’t fill up on candy—the innovative theater offers a full dinner and bar menu for grown-up trick-or-treaters.•

 

Jack Brown can be reached at cinemadope@gmail.com.

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