Thursday, March 27, 2008

BYOC (Bring Your Own Context)

Mark David Chapman (Jared Leto) holds a copy of Double Fantasy as he walks with Jude (Lindsay Lohan) near the Dakota.

Chapter 27
84 minutes

Written and Directed by
Jarrett Schaefer
Starring Jared Leto, Lindsay Lohan, Judah Friedlander, and Mark Lindsay Chapman

From U.S.

By Robert Rosen

The first thing you have to do if you want to understand Chapter 27, the film about the assassination of John Lennon, is read The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger’s classic novel of disaffected youth, originally published in 1951. The book, narrated in the pitch-perfect adolescent voice of hypocrisy-hating Holden Caulfield, is what “inspired” Mark David Chapman to murder Lennon—because he believed that the reclusive, super-wealthy rock star who sang “Imagine no possessions” was, in the words of Holden, a “goddamn phony.”

Throughout the film, Chapman refers to the book, quotes from it, and imagines and acts out scenes from it. But unless Catcher’s fresh in your mind, you often won’t know that that’s what he’s doing. For example, the scene in the coffee shop where Chapman (Jared Leto) asks Jude (Lindsay Lohan) to run away with him is a direct steal from chapter 17 of The Catcher in the Rye—which I didn’t realize till I reread the book after I saw the movie.

also partially explains the film’s title, an essential bit of information that writer/director Jarrett Schaefer has neglected to share with his audience. Schaefer does give some indication that the title Chapter 27 is a reference to the Salinger novel. And he does show some pages from Catcher in the opening sequence, focusing on chapter numbers 9 and 26. But he doesn’t make explicitly clear that Catcher ends on chapter 26 and that Chapman, who saw himself as the reincarnation of Holden Caulfield, believed that if he shot Lennon five times in the back, then he’d write chapter 27 in the ex-Beatle’s blood. That, at least, is how I explain it in my own Lennon bio, Nowhere Man, which is the second book you have to read—because it’s the only book that explains how the number 27 karmically links Chapman to Lennon.

Anybody who’s been following my other blog
already knows that, according to Mojo magazine and the Spanish-language newsweekly Proceso, Schaefer expropriated his title from Nowhere Man’s “Chapter 27.” In that section I show how 27, “the triple 9,” was a number of profound importance to the ex-Beatle, who was obsessed with numerology, Cheiro’s Book of Numbers­, and especially number 9 and all its multiples. (Lennon was born on October 9.)

Perhaps if
Schaefer had made this numerological connection, it would have given his film a deeper and more chilling resonance. But choosing instead to completely ignore information that was essential to understanding both the title and the meaning of his story, he simply left it up to the audience to supply their own context, which might be asking a little too much of contemporary moviegoers.

This lack of context may partially explain the hundreds of vicious reviews that have appeared since Chapter 27 premiered last year at Sundance. And it may also explain why, despite the presence of two major stars, the film faced such epic difficulties finding a distributor.

But let there be no doubt that amidst this fundamental confusion one extraordinary performance emerges: Jared Leto as Chapman. He doesn’t just play the character, he inhabits him. Famously (and perhaps insanely), Leto packed on 60 pounds for the role—in one scene the camera sensuously caresses his rolls of fat. And he is riveting as the murderous nerd who speaks in an absurdly creepy southern-accented whisper and is onscreen for virtually every frame of the film. To watch him is a claustrophobic experience, like being trapped in a room for 84 minutes with a socially awkward psychopath.

It’s up to Lindsay Lohan, in her small but appealingly energetic role as Jude, a Lennon fan (based on a real person) who befriends Chapman before realizing there’s something wrong with him, to express the discomfort and repulsion you feel in the presence of the aspiring killer.

She has some help from Judah Friedlander as Paul, based on paparazzo Paul Goresh, who, with a well-timed jolt of energy, alleviates the often crushing sense of being a prisoner of Chapman’s consciousness. Best known for his comedic work on 30 Rock, Friedlander efficiently portrays the slightly sarcastic regular guy from Jersey who photographs Lennon (
Mark Lindsay Chapman) signing Mark David Chapman’s copy of Double Fantasy hours before the murder.

But again Schaefer doesn’t give his audience enough background or context to fully understand who these people are and why they’re doing what they’re doing. You do learn that Chapman’s a Beatles fan from Hawaii, who appears to have a wife back home. (Chapman’s wife was Japanese, like Yoko Ono, but that’s not mentioned.) The movie’s confined to the three days—December 6-8, 1980—leading up to the murder, and in that time frame it’s almost impossible for Schaefer to show what drove an unemployed security guard to such delusional depths of insanity that he twice traveled 5,000 miles to assassinate a celebrity in the name of Holden Caulfield.

It would have been helpful, for example, to know about the “Little People,” the imaginary civilization that populated Chapman’s head and the walls of his room since he was a child, and whom he depended on to guide him in his decision-making; to know that when Chapman was a teenager, he played the guitar and dropped a lot of acid; to know that in Hawaii he attempted suicide and spent time in a mental institution; and to know that he was compelled by a desire to transcend his own insignificance and steal Lennon’s fame and identity. And it would have been especially illuminating to see Chapman, in his Honolulu apartment, listening to Beatles music in the middle of the night, begging Satan for the power to kill Lennon and chanting, “The phony must die, says the Catcher in the Rye.”

I wrote about all this in the seven final chapters of Nowhere Man, “The Coda,” where the concept of “Chapter 27” is at the forefront of the story and where I probed the meaning of what Chapman did.

Jack Jones also wrote about it in Let Me Take You Down, the book credited with “inspiring” Chapter 27. Though this worthwhile biography fails to explain the numerological implications of Chapter 27 or show how it played into the heart of Lennon’s obsession with the number 9, it does, indeed, plumb the ooze of Chapman’s mind, from his lunatic point of view, detailing everything you could possibly want to know about the killer’s voyage to the depths of the “bottomless pit” (see The Catcher in the Rye, chapter 24, or Nowhere Man’s “Chapter 27”).

And director Andrew Piddington covered some of this material in that other Chapman movie, The Killing of John Lennon, which delves into Chapman’s background and graphically depicts the actual murder in a way that Chapter 27 doesn’t approach.

All this contextual criticism is not to say that Chapter 27 is a “lousy”—if I may borrow a word from Holden—movie. It’s not. It’s just a dispiriting and mistitled one. And now that I’ve seen it, I think I finally understand what Jarrett Schaefer was thinking, at least as far as the title goes. He probably found artistically irresistible both the concept of Chapman writing chapter 27 in Lennon’s blood and the idea of Lennon and Chapman being linked by a mystical number. Because he’s an inexperienced filmmaker, he probably thought he could graft a cool title onto a movie that had little to do with that title, and just leave it at that. He probably thought most people would either get it or wouldn’t care. And he probably believed on some level that the author of Nowhere Man didn’t really exist. Well, he was wrong. And though I’m sure it wasn’t his intention, I’d like to thank him for inspiring this blog.


I’d be remiss if I neglected to mention that I knew well two of the people depicted in Chapter 27: John Lennon’s assistant and my former writing partner, Fred Seaman (Matthew Humphreys), and Fred’s aunt and Sean Lennon’s governess, Helen Seaman (Le Clanche DuRand). I must commend Humphreys, in his brief scene with Chapman, for neatly capturing the contemptuousness that Seaman routinely displayed to anybody he found “beneath” him (like the fans who hung out at the Dakota). But I must also point out that in the very creepy scene where Chapman meets Sean, Helen, an earth mother from the Bronx, is portrayed as an impeccably dressed upper-crusty English lady.


This review with a different photo also appears on my other
blog, Chapter 27, a resource of information on John Lennon, the events surrounding his murder, his portrayal in the media, and the uncredited connection between the film, Chapter 27, and the section called “Chapter 27” in Nowhere Man.