Friday, December 14, 2007

The Killing of John Lennon

"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
To understand
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....

17 comments:

Porlock Junior said...

'Only a few hours after he has killed John, he is wishing that things could "go back to how they were before".'

Hmm, as sane as Macbeth:

'Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had lived a blessed time'

Hmm again, maybe that's not exactly a high standard. As Richard Mitchell said, Macbeth's life was a tale told by an idiot; I guess Macbeth's advantage over Chapman is that he began finally to understand that.

Don't think I'll see the movie, anyway.

Gavin Burrows said...

One of the first things I read by you was a review of the Planet of the Apes remake. Your review was a lot more interesting than the apauling movie, and I feel strangely reminded of that now.

I suspect they've made this film out of a desire to grab virgin territory, "no-one's done the Chapman story yet! Our flag could be the first!" However, the reason no-one else has filmed this 'story' is because there isn't one, really. Man who shoots famous man turns out to be dysfunctional wacko. Stop the presses.

Sole interesting point: singing "imagine no possessions" whilst sitting in a vast mansion is perhaps a touch hypocritical. Not necessarily a capital offence but a touch hypocritical.

So don't think I'll be queueing for this one either.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I don't think that Yoko every seriously proposed that we should remove the earth's satellite and replace it with a citrus fruit. Imagining the impossible was supposed to be a self-liberating act in itself.

The song proposes a serious of progressively difficult exercises in imagining the impossible. If you try, it's easy to imagine that there is no afterlife. It isn't hard to imagine that there is no religion. But imagining a world with no possessions may not even be possible.

Yoko believes that John still exists, at some level, though not in a conventionally Christian heaven. She told us that John prayed for the world, and asked his fans to pray for him. To whom? And John and Yoko had lots of possessions, where you, me and Mr. Chapman only have a few.

The thought experiment proposed by the song is "How would we live if all the things we quarrel about were removed? Well, why cannot we live like that anyway." A little like Tolstoy's reading of the Sermon on the Mount if I remember correctly: we are not the lilies of the field, but there is absolutely nothing stopping us from living like them, starting tomorrow.

Not my favourite Lennon song, by any means.


Didn't intend to put anyone off seeing the film, by the way: I'm not sure it should have been made, but given that it has been, it's an interesting artifact and probably worth a couple hours of your time, if you are interested in the subject matter.

Andrew Hickey said...

I don't know that "Imagine no possessions" is incompatible with being a millionaire, or at all hypocritical. If the thought process "This is unjust, I hope for this injustice to be removed, but I, while a beneficiary of the system that creates this injustice, am not in a position to change that system, so I might as well continue to enjoy the benefits while at least acknowledging the injustice" is hypocritical then everyone in the West is a hypocrite.

John Lennon giving his possessions away would not have meant that there were now no possessions - it would just have meant that *he* had no possessions...

Tpolg said...

Imagine is work of art, if you try to make it into a political/economic treatise, its gibberish. Let us not forget John Lennon once said “Declare Peace” obviously intellectual argument was not his forte. He was an artistic genius, if you try to make him more; you end up making him less.

Gavin Burrows said...

andrew rilstone said...
The song proposes a serious of progressively difficult exercises in imagining the impossible. If you try, it's easy to imagine that there is no afterlife. It isn't hard to imagine that there is no religion. But imagining a world with no possessions may not even be possible… The thought experiment proposed by the song is "How would we live if all the things we quarrel about were removed? Well, why cannot we live like that anyway.

Perhaps the difference between us is that I don’t see the song as a ‘thought experiment’, so much as a blueprint. I imagine (no pun intended!) Lennon was thinking of King’s “I have a dream” and the like when he wrote it. The difference being King didn’t imagine that the imagining itself was sufficient!

Or perhaps the difference between us is that I not only see the other ‘exercises’ as not only possible but desirable. No countries would suit me. But no possessions? Proudhon wrote the famous “property is theft” line, but even he distinguished property from possessions!

andrew hickey said...
I don't know that "Imagine no possessions" is incompatible with being a millionaire, or at all hypocritical [or else] everyone in the West is a hypocrite….John Lennon giving his possessions away would not have meant that there were now no possessions - it would just have meant that *he* had no possessions...

At the risk of being glib, most of us who live in the West aren’t millionaires! (Unless I’m hanging our in the wrong circles.) But of course you’re right. Lennon giving his money away wouldn’t be magic cure-all for everything. There’d just be a handful of New York homeless folk sporting newfound fur coats. But Lennon, at various times in various ways, affected a radical chic , which strikes me as something like having it both ways.

tpolg said...
He was an artistic genius, if you try to make him more; you end up making him less.

Very true. But my point would be he often tried to present himself as more.

As a piece of music, I do like the song. I like the counterpoint of the low piano notes with the high voice. Could I mention that, before I make myself sound like I’m actually on the side of Chapman? (Or the CIA, depending how insane you are.)

SK said...

He was an artistic genius

Artistic genii don't try to rhyme words with themselves.

Except 'shelves', obviously.

Sylvia said...

Off the topic (unless we want to make a "John Lennon dies at the end? zomg spoilers!" sort of segue)--I wanted to point someone to a piece you wrote ages ago about spoilers and why they do or don't matter, but I can't find it on the new website. Do you know the one I mean? Might have been nominally a review of Alien 4.

ASG said...

Director Andrew Piddington took the courageous decision to depict Chapman only through words that he really spoke.

Some years ago I read an essay by a Mormon screenwriter who said that the LDS doesn't permit film directors to make Jesus say anything that he didn't say in the Bible. Halfhearted Googling hasn't led me to anything else about the "rule," so maybe it was just this guy and not the LDS as a whole (or maybe I'm misremembering). But I always found it a very arresting vision of canon.

Andrew Hickey said...

Sylvia - that piece (and the rest of Andrew's old website) can be found on The Wayback Machine - http://web.archive.org/web/20041024021543/www.aslan.demon.co.uk/alien.htm

Andrew Hickey said...

Or, splitting it to be readable:
http://web.archive.org/web/20041024021543
/www.aslan.demon.co.uk/alien.htm

Gavin Burrows said...

asg said...
Some years ago I read an essay by a Mormon screenwriter who said that the LDS doesn't permit film directors to make Jesus say anything that he didn't say in the Bible.

First pass, I read that as LSD doesn't permit... That sounded more understandable.

Tpolg said...

Sk - Artistic genii don't try to rhyme words with themselves.


Oh, well I guess that ruins my point entirely.

Sylvia said...

Thanks, other Andrew. :) When I first read that piece, my appreciation of the punchline was marred by "two peoples separated by a common language" syndrome. I had to assume that the last line was a spoiler for Alien: Resurrection, since I didn't know what the hell a "sledge" was...

Gavin Burrows said...

Let's try to tie these wayward (albeit interesting) threads together!
Firstly,
this

Also, as people in the (largely asinine) comments section point out, the words to this song skirt close to Champan's mentality (despite it being released
before Lennon's murder). The way the song ends also feels reminiscent of Citizen Kane.

Gavin Burrows said...

First quote being on murders and telegraphed plot turns, but somehow I must have deleted that bit!

Gordon Marshall said...

"A series of progressively more difficult exercises"--that makes me think of the Zen discipline of imagining a scene, and then one-by-one removing every element of the scene until there is nothing left; and then piece-by-piece putting each part back into the picture. I also think of Yoko's live video moniter at Boston's ICA wired to a camera on its roof: "Above us only sky..."