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Friday, Dec. 7, 2007
'The U.S. vs. John Lennon'/'Chapter 27'
The pop world's agent provocateur
This Saturday, Dec. 8, marks 27 years since ex-Beatle John Lennon was gunned down outside his New York City home. Fans of the singer — and he still has many — often mark this sad anniversary by playing his music, raising a glass to his memory, or lighting a candle in Strawberry Fields.
One thing fans will definitely NOT want to do is to see "Chapter 27," a film that takes the viewer into the mind of Mark David Chapman, the man who shot Lennon five times in the back after the singer had autographed an album cover for him.
This appalling film takes an excruciating 85 minutes to show us — guess what? — there were some pretty confused thoughts going through Chapman's head on the day he murdered Lennon. Hardly a surprise, but going through the details of Chapman's schizophrenia, the conflicting inner voices and delusion that he was Holden Caulfield (the narrator of "The Catcher In The Rye" by J.D. Salinger), is simply too much information.
Insanity, by definition, can't be made sense of. We can only seek treatment for it, or as in the case of Chapman's level of madness, run from it — that's what basically every character in the movie does, and the viewer will feel the same way.
Liberal ideologues, rich defense attorneys, and the directors of "edgy" films about loathed killers will all present insanity as a kind of victimization, a mitigating factor that insists we must attempt to understand a killer's mental state. Well, a tiger can't be blamed for wanting to gnaw on people, but we still keep it behind bars; what's to understand? It is clearly those who have never felt their lives in peril who have the luxury of "understanding" the mind of a killer. (A moral quandary that "Capote" captured well.)
J.P. Schaefer, the director of "Chapter 27," has the gall to claim, in an interview, that Chapman wasn't even mentally ill, that he had his reasons for what he did! Presumably his film is an explanation of this poor, misunderstood man's "reasons" for killing Lennon.
What a miserable, misguided age we live in that someone would rather make a film about the pathetic, confused, jealous little man who murders senselessly, than the great artist he killed, a man who brought unforgettable music and unabashed idealism to so many. As author Jack Jones ("Let Me Take You Down") put it, "(Chapman) was killing a part of all of us. He wanted to hurt the world." His was an act of sheer narcissism.
Yes, Mark David Chapman had a hard life. He was perhaps abused by his father, and he clearly needed psychiatric help. But you know what, he got help and it didn't do a damn bit of good. Lennon had a hard life too — growing up without a father, being thrown out of school, losing his mother, being publicly pilloried for his "bigger than Jesus" remark — but he overcame his troubles and made something wonderful of his time on this planet. Chapman achieved nothing but ending a life, and now we get "Chapter 27" attempting to elicit our sympathies.
Well, boo-hoo. May the man rot in jail. The only reason this film is receiving even one star is the performance of Jared Leto ("Fight Club"), a pretty boy who has physically morphed (plus 16 kilos) into the chubby, mumbling Chapman. He alternates between shy, charming eccentricity and shouting, wild-eyed craziness. It's a committed performance in a misguided film.
Of far more interest to Lennon fans is the documentary "The U.S. vs. John Lennon" (opening in Japan as "Peace Bed"), which looks at Lennon's growing involvement in the antiwar movement of the late-1960s and '70s, and government attempts to shut him up. (Though, interestingly, the film stops before addressing claims that Mark David Chapman was a "Manchurian candidate," an assassin brainwashed by the CIA.)
Directors David Leaf and John Scheinfeld do a good job of laying out the cultural climate of political paranoia (read: Nixon White House) in which Lennon became a figure of some political controversy. The idea that a musician could be viewed as a political threat may seem quaint to some, but recall that Lennon's "Give Peace A Chance" was banned from airplay on most commercial radio stations in the U.S. in the runup to the Iraq war.
The film traces Lennon's increasing involvement with social radicals of the '60s like yippie Jerry Rubin and Black Panther Bobby Seale. Central to the film is the "bed-in" he staged with Yoko Ono on their honeymoon in 1969, in which they addressed the press from hotel bedrooms, using their celebrity status (they were the Brangelina of their day) to call for an end to the war in Vietnam. Watching Lennon on an old TV interview saying "our government is run by insane people for insane purposes," it's hard to imagine someone so famous being so bold today.
Peering inside the Nixon White House, though, we see that Lennon was right. Nixon started a vendetta against Lennon that led to wiretapping Lennon's home and deportation proceedings against him based on an old drug conviction in Britain (which itself may have been due to planted evidence). People at the time spoke of Lennon's retreat from the spotlight in the mid-'70s, saying he had become a house-husband or whatever. This film makes clear, however, that the pressure got to him.
Perhaps the best image from the film, though, comes from Lennon and Ono's first bed-in. We see John, lying next to Yoko, caressing her hair and looking down on her with a smile of pure content, looking so very much in love. Given the way Ono was portrayed as the "witch" who broke up The Beatles, this shot is a perfect riposte. The recent interview with her that's in the film shows that the pain of Chapman's act has barely faded.