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The Conversation: What are People Saying About Errol Morris’s JFK Assassination Doc, “The Umbrella Man”?

Tabloid, the latest feature film from Academy Award-winning documentarian Errol Morris (The Thin Blue LineThe Fog of War) was left off this year’s horribly disappointing Oscar shortlist, and unfortunately it’s also too late to include a new six-minute work of his on the short-subject shortlist. That’s okay, because a whole ton of people are watching a documentary short today (let alone just a doc or just a short!), and that’s more exciting to me than any awards it might receive.

What they’re looking at is The Umbrella Man, which was posted to the New York Times‘ new Op-Doc element of its opinion section. Fitting today’s commemoration of John F. Kennedy’s death 48 years ago, the film centers on an interview with JFK assassination scholar Josiah “Tink” Thompson, who tells us about the infamous Umbrella Man, suspicious for holding an open umbrella in Dealey Plaza at the very point in which the motorcade was fired upon. 

The short comes out of a six-hour interview with Thompson, and Morris says it’s to be the first in a series about the tragedy, which he’s always wanted to make a film about. I’m curious which way it progresses since right off the back we’re thinking about conspiracy theories and then being made to rethink prejudices of sinister-looking things. It’s something that goes along with many other Morris films and currently relates even to himself. Morris is currently being sued by his Tabloid subject in part for things I can’t help but suspect the filmmaker indeed had sinister motives regarding. But perhaps he’s just as innocent as the Umbrella Man, aka Louie Steven Witt, seems to have been.

If you’re interested in reading more of Witt’s testimonial before the U.S. House Select Committe on Assassinations back in 1978, head over here for the full transcript. Watch it below:

What are people saying about Errol Morris’s The Umbrella Man? Here’s The Conversation heard around the blogosphere and Twitter: 

Morris has a great talent for finding very engaging interview subjects and then enhancing the things that make them such good speakers. I don’t think he had to do much to Thompson, who is a bit like the Yoda of JFK assassination scholars. But his kicker statement is worth repeating, and should be taken as a core truth: “If you have any fact which you think is really sinister… which can only point to some sinister underpinning, hey, forget it, man. Because you can never on your own think up all the non-sinister, perfectly valid explanations for that fact.” – Russ Fischer, /Film

In Morris’ typically beautiful way, and aided by a great score, we find out as always, that truth is so much stranger than fiction. This is some pretty great stuff, and the first of what Morris hopes will be a multi-part examination of the assassination (awesome). – Kevin Jagernauth, The Playlist

Someone! Fire up a Kickstarter campaign for the rest of the series, already. – S.T. VanAirsdale, Movieline

As Home Alone taught us, just because there’s an ominous old man holding a weapon-like seasonal item, it doesn’t always mean he’s involved in the crime. Sometimes it was Lee Harvey Oswald, Joe Pesci, or Daniel Stern. – Mark, I Watch Stuff

A new film from one of the world’s greatest documentary filmmakers is always cause for joy […] It’s fascinating stuff, impeccably constructed as usual by Morris. – Alex Riviello,

Bizarre […] an object lesson in the fact that truth is, indeed, often far stranger than fiction. – David Wharton, Cinema Blend

He was holding an umbrella as a kind of protest against Joseph Kennedy’s appeasement policies as the ambassador to the UK in 1938 and 1939, and that the umbrella was a reference to Neville Chamberlain. It just goes to show that even 50 years ago, people protesting had a tendency to greatly overestimate people’s capacity to know what the f*ck they’re talking about. – Vince Mancini, Film Drunk

I’m not sure if Morris saw the odd relevance to the Occupy protest movement, but there’s an intriguing subtext to “The Umbrella Man” that dovetails nicely with mainstream beliefs that passive protest movements are somehow linked to dangerous acts of subversion or worse. – Anthony Kaufman, Reel Politik

@Wine_Discovery: Compelling movie about circumstance, chance and false interpretation. Wish more understood this!

@SalmanRushdie: I love this. A cautionary tale for all conspiracy theorists.

@e_jaffe: a cautionary tale for historians against assuming too much

@AliceJoySF: I love everything about this — interesting, quirky and thought-provoking

@McCann_NY: Genius!! 

@kellymunson: If you put any event under a microscope you will find a whole dimension of incredible things going on

@androoshaw: I’d love to see a feature length Errol Morris documentary about the Kennedy assassination. This will do for now.

Follow Christopher Campbell on Twitter (@thefilmcynic) to join The Conversation.


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