The film winds forward, reels back, winds forward, reels back. Time slows. Time stops. A single image. Centre frame. A young black man in a light suit. His arm extended low. He’s holding a gun. Right of centre, a white man, leathered and bearded, his arm above his head, a sliver of silver in his hand glittering malevolently under the stage lights. The sliver is aimed at the head of the black man.

Time has slowed, time has stopped on the screen of David Maysles’s editing desk, but the momentum of the moment is clear. Mick Jagger watches, his face a mask of hollowed-out blankness. This is the end. The end of Maysles’s film Gimme Shelter. The frozen time waiting to rush back at us is December, 1969. Altamont, where a Rolling Stones free concert was marred by violence when the Hell’s Angels, hired as security, began beating on the crowd. Meredith Hunter, the black man with a gun, was killed. He was 18. The end of the 1960s. Some might say -- some did say -- the end of innocence too.

But what innocence could there have been left by then? April 1968, Martin Luther King was shot dead on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Two months later Bobby Kennedy was gunned down in the serving pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. “There was a head on the floor streaming blood,” Alistair Cooke would tell his British audience a few days later in his weekly Letter From America, “and somebody put a Kennedy boater under it, and the blood trickled down the sides like chocolate sauce on an iced cake.”

Kennedy’s death came less than five years after the murder of his brother, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, an assassination caught on the grainy images of Abraham Zapruder’s little 8mm camera, the president’s head thrown “back and to the left, back and to the left” as Kevin Costner points out in Oliver Stone’s film JFK. America in the 1960s. It’s just a shot away.

Of course, as James Ellroy once said, the United States was never that innocent: “America was founded on a bedrock of racism, slaughter of the indigenous people, slavery, religious lunacy.” But the dark 1960s -- that moment when the American Dream was subsumed by an American scream -- keeps drawing writers and film-makers (Ellroy among them) back again and again, pushing their hands into the murky well of history, trying to discern some shape that can be understood out of the mess of that time: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the civil rights movement, death at home and abroad, Vietnam a dirty white noise constantly screeching away in the background. A ball of confusion.

Ellroy was fired up by reading Libra, Don DeLillo’s take on Lee Harvey Oswald and perhaps the first serious novel to take the whole notion of a conspiracy in Dallas seriously. Ellroy has now written three huge books on the subject, covering America from 1958 to 1972. Blood’s A Rover is the latest in his Underworld USA trilogy, historical fiction told in brutalist shorthand, greedy for detail and jazzed on style. It takes for granted that presidents were mobbed up, that there never was a single gunman on Dealey Plaza, that the fear of communism was used as a justification of virtually anything by everyone from Hoover to Nixon. There are no shining heroes here, no “dying king” (Costner again). Everyone is dirty in their own way.

By contrast, Oliver Stone’s film JFK lays the 1960s out as morality play. It’s poor history but bravura (if egregiously sentimental) film-making. “Who did the President? F***, man! It’s a mystery,” a wildly wigged Joe Pesci tells us. “It’s a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma! The shooters don’t even know! Don’t you get it?” Stone knows though. Not the Mafia, not Lee Harvey Oswald, but the CIA, the state, the military-industrial complex, all afraid that JFK -- endowed with a retrospective regal nobility -- was going to pull the army out of Vietnam, and so they determined to stop him. A coup d’etat in other words.

Typical Stone. Over the top of over the top. And yet at his best -- in Salvador, in large parts of JFK -- he is a journalist film-maker. He wants to shape the evidence, impose a story upon it, make it make sense (even if the story he is telling doesn’t).


Descent into paranoia


Not everyone responded in the same way. Andy Warhol treated the Kennedy assassination as pure dumbshow spectacle in his screenprint sequence Flash -- November 22, 1963. Others couldn’t find any sense in anything from that period. Watch Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and there’s no desire for understanding. It argues -- as much as it argues for anything coherent -- for senselessness. The Vietnam War is experienced as a kind of stoned drift. The film’s most telling moments are found in that scene where spooked black GIs fire randomly, aimlessly, into the night at invisible enemies. It’s more telling and troubling than Michael Cimino’s pantomime Vietcong in The Deer Hunter forcing the captured grunts to play Russian Roulette, or Stone’s risible Manichean morality in Platoon.

The popular contemporary Hollywood liberal response to the American scream was to dip into paranoia. It’s all over the movies of the early 1970s. In Alan J Pakula’s The Parallax View -- a film full of brilliantly brooding empty silences -- political assassination becomes part of corporate culture and anyone who resists, even if they look as good as Warren Beatty, is destined to play the patsy and maybe end up dead into the bargain.

Coppola’s The Conversation (released the same year as Watergate) is suffused with a fear of the burgeoning culture of surveillance. Conspiracies, these films say, are all around us. Both William Richert’s excellent yet little seen adaptation of a Richard Condon novel about political assassinations, Winter Kills, and Roman Polanski’s neo-noir masterpiece Chinatown locate the source in patriarchy and in the shape of John Huston. (And maybe my eyes deceive me, but isn’t that a close-up of Huston that recurs again and again in the Parallax Corporation’s brainwashing video in Pakula’s movie too?) It’s all Daddy’s fault.

The film critic Molly Haskell has argued that these paranoid thrillers are weighted down with “an almost voluptuous aura of defeatism”. There’s nothing to be done, they say. “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

Eventually, all of this would dilute into pop culture convention. The CIA bad guy, the overwheening conspiracy; it’s the stuff of every two-bit B-movie and TV show of the 1980s and the 1990s (The X Files gives it all a sci-fi twist, but the bogeymen men, the programme tells us, are really found in Washington). And in the margins, the Dead Kennedys are singing America Uber Alles. The transformation of fear into habit would carry on until 9/11 and the birth of all new conspiracy theories.

Now and again over those years, the door would be pushed open for a little bit of liberal revisionism, as found in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X or Mario Van Peebles’s Panther. But Hollywood has nothing as radical (nor for that matter as reactionary) to say as Ellroy. For that you have to look to that most critically base of genres the horror movie. For the best take on the American scream, watch George Romero’s self-financed, utterly independent zombie movie, Night Of The Living Dead again. It is in-your-face political. A metaphor for Vietnam, an alienated and powerless populace and a state that doesn’t know who’s good and who’s bad, but knows what to do when it sees a black man taking control, zombie or not. Shoot them in the head.


Blood’s A Rover, by James Ellroy, is published by Century on November 5 at £18.99. The Rolling Stones: Gimme Shelter is out now on DVD from Warner Home Video at £17.99