Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Double Fantasy: The Deaths of John Lennon

In what’s become a standard bit of movie synchronicity, two films that tread the same ground were premiered less than six months apart. Unlike previous Hollywood head-to-heads such as the competing Robin Hood films (Kevin Reynold’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves versus John Irvin’s Robin Hood) or volcano films (Mick Jackson’s Volcano versus Roger Donaldson’s Dante’s Peak), the two Mark David Chapman films haven’t captured many headlines or broken box office records. If anything, they’ll be lucky to sneak into the local video store after their brief runs (having both come out in Europe on DVD).

Andrew Piddington’s The Killing of John Lennon (2006) and J.P. Schaefer’s Chapter 27 (2007) were written by their directors (though Schaefer’s film gives a nod to Jack Jones’s Let Me Take You Down with an “inspired by” credit). The two films are narrated by the Mark David Chapman character to recall the first-person voice of Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, the book that fueled the crazed Chapman.

Chapter 27
Despite relating the same story, the two films take radically different approaches. Schaefer sets his story during the final three days of John Lennon’s life: December 6–8, 1980, which strengthens the relationship between Chapman’s and Caulfield’s trips to New York. Chapman considered his pilgrimage to New York a spiritual journey wherein he became Caulfield, writing a new chapter of Salinger’s book “in John Lennon’s blood.” As if it had already been written, Chapman feels that he’s answering his fate. He’s constantly seeing signs that confirm this “truth.”

Limiting the story to three days of “destiny” also presents parallels between Chapter 27 and the Passion Play, especially when Chapman pleads with fellow Beatles fan Jude (a distracting Lindsay Lohan) and paparazzo Paul Goresh (a nearly unrecognizable Judah Friedlander) to stay with him, recalling Jesus’s plea to Peter, John, and James to stay awake with him at Gethsemane (Matthew 26:40).

Other moments of symbolism in Schaefer’s film are a little more obvious, having all the subtlety of a Mack Truck. Chapman makes several references to The Wizard of Oz, calling himself a “tin man.” Lennon is a stand in for the great and powerful Oz living in his “Emerald City” (the Dakota), and the man behind the curtain is Chapman’s idea of the ultimate phony. Chapman perceived a contradiction when Lennon “told us to imagine no possessions, and there he was, with millions of dollars and yachts and farms and country estates” (Let Me Take You Down, page 26).

Near the end of Chapter 27, the introduction of Paul Goresh calls into question the differences between stalkers and paparazzi. More than the hunt to “shoot” celebrities, Goresh and Chapman stick to the shadows, employing similar techniques to get to their prey. This theme could have been explored more, and perhaps it was in the 100-minute cut shown at Sundance, 2007. The version released to DVD in Europe clocks in 16 minutes shorter.

As Chapman, Jared Leto gives an amazing performance. More than his physical transformation (gaining over 60 lbs.), he fully adopted the mannerisms, voice, and mood of the troubled young man. Leto conveys the sense of desperation for connection of the misanthropic assassin. Though the actor provides a sympathetic portrayal of Chapman, Chapter 27 avoids turning him into a hero. Even with the often overwrought score by Anthony Marinelli, Chapter 27 is an interesting, if not entertaining, film.

The Killing of John Lennon
“I hate the movies. They’re phony, so goddamn phony,” says Mark David Chapman in Chapter 27. Other than The Wizard of Oz, Chapman isn’t much of a film fan. The Mark David Chapman (Jonas Ball) in The Killing of John Lennon would probably disagree. Despite the opening credit in Andrew Piddington’s film that “All of Chapman’s Words Are His Own,” his Chapman liberally quotes Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now. Likewise, Piddington’s direction liberally quotes Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Oliver Stone, and Spike Lee.

The Killing of John Lennon skips backwards and forwards in time primarily during the first two acts. The narrative begins in September 1980 with Mark David Chapman in Hawaii. The audience sees glimpses of him working as a security guard, freaking out about his overbearing, oversexed mother (Krisha Fairchild), berating his softspoken wife (Mie Omori), hassling scientologists, and pretending to be a sniper. Chapman must be making good money at his crappy job. While he drives a shitbox car, he can afford a gun and two trips from Hawaii to New York.

The aborted first “mission” to execute John Lennon doesn’t add much to the story, but appears to be included for the sake of accuracy. Unfortunately, this care about details isn’t consistent. Two of the more obvious gaffes have a September 1980 news broadcast mentioning that the presidential election is “next Tuesday” (a few months early), and a convicted Chapman is sent to Riker’s Island instead of Attica.

The press notes for The Killing of John Lennon have an air of petulance regarding the “truth” of the film. The unnamed writer boasts that Killing has no “phony girlfriend” (a reference to Lindsay Lohan’s role in Chapter 27; playing “Betsy” to Leto’s “Travis,” as it were). Her presence helps crystallize Chapman’s misanthropy. In a narrative film, veracity should be sacrificed in respect to characterization and pacing.

Piddington’s film is plodding. Once Lennon has been shot—far more graphically than in Chapter 27, which keeps the camera on Chapman during the killing—The Killing of John Lennon runs out of steam, but remains on screen for another 40 minutes! The final act ambles aimlessly through police interviews, psychiatric interviews, and scenes of Chapman in prison, where his narration grows tiresome.

The Chapman of The Killing of John Lennon sees himself as an agent of change. He’s ending the ’60s with a .38 and helping to usher in a new era, led by Ronald Reagan. Election posters line the entrance of the library where Chapman rediscovers The Catcher in the Rye, and a Reagan stump speech plays over the opening of the film. With a Chapman more indebted to Travis Bickle than Holden Caulfield, the brief inclusion of John Hinkley Jr.’s assassination attempt of Reagan could have been interesting. Hinkley was another proponent of The Catcher in the Rye and swore allegiance to Jodie Foster after repeated viewings of Taxi Driver. With a dearth of material to keep viewers engaged, perhaps Piddington should have considered exploring the Hinkley parallels further.

If you can imagine Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood) impersonating Travis Bickle, you have a close approximation of Jonas Ball’s performance as Mark David Chapman. Though his “accent” is mentioned, there’s little trace of Chapman’s Southern roots present in Ball’s vocalization. The actor is also lacking the girth, Jim Jones glasses, and unassuming politeness of the killer. This Chapman looks more like Jim Morrison gone to seed. Leto’s Chapman soars to heights and sinks to lows swiftly, often sounding like a petulant child. Ball is very even in his delivery, giving his Chapman much more of a sinister air.

The Killing of John Lennon utilizes the multi-format approach popularized by Oliver Stone’s JFK and Natural Born Killers. However, Piddington merely seems to be aping Stone’s style, adding nothing of his own. Things go from bad to worse in the third act, which not only meanders in tone, but appears to have been made as a student film and tacked on as an afterthought. The interview of Chapman by a Bellvue psychiatrist looks as if it were shot while the cameraman was asleep. Though, at nearly two hours (with half that filler), sleep is the most natural response to this sloppy film.

Chapter 27
The Killing of John Lennon

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