"Look then to be well edified, as the fool delivers the madman."
So, let's see. The murder of John Lennon, re-enacted on the spot where it occurred. (Allegedly.) John only briefly on screen, represented by an actor but his face in shadow: all we see is his hair-cut and his specs. (Can you say "iconic"?) Captions on the screen, start out giving the date, but end up just saying "Two days remain", "Three hours remain". Interminable voice-overs by Mark Chapman (Jonas Ball). The arrest, prison, a brief trial, the same quote from Catcher in the Rye for the third or fourth time. The killer taken off to jail. A final, redundant caption telling us he's still there. No John Lennon song over the credits. This tiny-budget movie couldn't possibly afford one.
What have we just watched? The story of the death of John Lennon? Everything which normally goes into a a "story" – tension, suspense, motivation, resolution – is excluded in principal. No tension or suspense, because we already know the ending. No motivation because this is an account of an essentially motiveless act. No resolution, because, well, there's no resolution. It's a work in progress: one day, Chapman will get out, go on the talk-show circuit, get shot by someone who takes John's message of peace and love a bit too seriously. A Greek tragedy, the re-enactment of a sacred death? An exploration of the mind of a sociopath? Or just another excuse to pick at an extremely masturbatory scab; to blubber once more over the fact that the man who caused the sixties was killed for absolutely no reason at all.
Not so much The Assassination of John Lennon By The Coward Mark Chapman, more a passion play where the camera never leaves Judas Iscariot. The Beatles are bigger than Jesus, after all.
About two thirds of the way through, we come to the actual murder. We see Johnandyoko in their car; we see them leave it; we hear Chapman call out "Mr. Lennon!". We see slow motion bullets going right through actor-Lennon's body, leaving bloody holes in it. (Chapman's gun dealer tells him that a burglar would just laugh at him if he'd only bought a small gun.) It's an arresting image, of course: but it's far too pleased with itself to be actually shocking. It's a special effect. We know that dumdum bullets make big holes in people: we know that people who've been shot bleed a lot. (Lennon had lost 80% of his blood when he reached hospital.) It doesn't bring us into the event, but distances us from it. Neither Chapman, nor Yoko, nor, one imagines, John, could possibly have perceived events in this way. It's happening purely for the enjoyment of the audience. The Imagine documentary represented the assassination with a single image of a pair of glasses flying through the air. This brought me no closer to imagining the literally unimaginable.
The film is confused about its viewpoint. Most of the time we're inside Chapman's head: which is not, funnily enough, a particularly interesting place to be. We see him shooting the two "homos" he can hear having sex in the next room at the YMCA, and then we see him back on his bed, deciding not to shoot them after all. (I must admit, that had me thinking "Gosh; I never knew he did that", for a second.) We even see him in that field of rye, trying to keep the little kids from falling off the cliff. Quite a meta-textual knot, if you think about it: an actor playing a lunatic imagining that he's a mentally unstable fictitious character imagining that he's a figure in a folk song.
So: if it's all from Chapman's point of view, whose benefit are all those "Ten minutes remain" captions for? Lennon didn't know he had only a limited amount of time to live. Chapman only realized on the night before the murder that tomorrow was the big day, and obviously didn't know exactly when John would step out of the car. Is it simple audience manipulation: a cheap way of creating tension in a movie which announces its ending both in its title and its choice of subject matter? Or is there some reason why the film has to keep saying "Look at me – I'm a film"?
A couple of weeks before the murder, Chapman decides to go home to his wife. (I'd forgotten that Chapman was married. To a Japanese girl, at that.) He triumphantly tells her that he nearly did something terrible, but he's now defeated his demons. Because of the loonies-eye-view of the action, I couldn't quite tell if Chapman really went back to Hawaii, or just thought of doing so. Not that it matters: in a different kind of film, this would be a clever, tension filled, will-he-won't-he false ending: but here it is just one more move in the stations of the cross. And that could be the point: the fact that we know exactly what is going to happen mirrors Chapman's deranged conviction that he's doing something he's predestined for.
Director Andrew Piddington took the courageous decision to depict Chapman only through words that he really spoke. The voice-over describes, and the action reenacts, the moment when Chapman chances on a copy of The Catcher in the Rye in a public library, and feels that the book speaks to him directly: that, in fact, he himself is Holden Caulfield. We also see him discovering, also by chance, a book about John Lennon and deciding that he is one of Caulfield's phonies and therefore it's his job to kill him.
The film tells us that Chapman particularly objected to Lennon's having said "Imagine no possessions", even though he himself had a few bob set aside for a rainy day. "I had to kill him because he was a hypocrite" is at least intelligible; expressions like "I had to kill him because I am Holden Caulfield" and "The phony must die, says the catcher in the rye" are simply without meaning.
But hang on a moment. How do we know that Chapman was set on his homicidal path by happening upon a copy of Sallinger and a celebrity biog of Lennon? Well, because Chapman said so: we are listening to the post-murder Chapman explaining the pre-murder Chapman's state of mind. But Chapman, I think we can agree, is not terribly, terribly sane. Is there any particular reason to think that he remembers these events correctly, and even if he could, that he would describe them honestly? (When we hear the name "John Lennon", "Imagine" is the first song which comes to mind. That wasn't necessarily the case in 1980. Is the "no possessions" angle one that Chapman thought up after the event?)
Once you've spotted this, the movie starts to unravel. For the first half Chapman is a dull, self-absorbed, chauvinistic, homophobic sociopath. ("Cold blooded killer in 'not very nice' shock.") But after the murder, he becomes much more human and is transformed, instantly, into a victim. (Does the film give a fair view of the brutality of the American criminal justice system? It beggars belief that Chapman was deemed mentally competent to enter a guilty plea at his trial. If the law says that this fruitcake murdered Lennon while of sound mind, the law is an ass.) He's also much less clear about his motivation. Only a few hours after he has killed John, he is wishing that things could "go back to how they were before". He tells the police that he doesn't know why he did it; he tells the psychiatrist that there were lots of different reasons – but can't actually specify a single one. These sequences are – presumably – based on contemporaneous accounts and transcripts. We're looking at a recreation of Chapman as police officers and psychiatrists actually saw him; where before, we were looking at a recreation of Chapman as he wanted us to see him or as he imagined himself. Chapman's voice tells us – in the past tense – that while awaiting trial, he re-read Catcher in the Rye and had some kind of supernatural visitation in which he felt that his brain cells were on fire. As a result, he realizes that the point of the murder is to promote the reading of Catcher in the Rye. (Not quite so interesting as discovering that, say, Yahweh is the ball of fire at the earth's core; or that the world ended in AD 70 and everything since then has been an illusion. Perhaps God was having an off-day?) How much of the rest of the narrative is a retrospective rationalization based on this epiphany?
So. Punishing Lennon for being a hypocrite. A peculiar act of self-identification with a fictional character. A publicity stunt for J.D Sallinger. While in his cell, Chapman sees a news report about the attempted shooting of Ronnie Reagan by John Hinckley, Jr. He comments (and again, this is presumably something which someone actually heard him say at the time) that if he hadn't been able to get to Lennon, he might have killed Jackie Onassis or Johnny Carson.
And I still think, depressingly, that this is the most believable explanation: a mad attempt to achieve celebrity by the ultimate act gratuit. Before the murder, we follow Chapman into a cinema where he watches Raging Bull and Ordinary People. The films-within-the-film take up the whole cinema-screen; but Chapman's silhouette is superimposed over them. We're watching him, watching them. Straight after the murder, Chapman says that John fell down like something out of a movie; and that now, he feels as if he is watching his own life like that of a character in a film.
"I was a nobody, until I killed the biggest somebody on earth." So what have we done? We've put him in a movie.
I don't expect you
After you've caused
So much pain.
But then again,
You're not to blame.
You're just a human
A victim of the insane....