Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Rock on film Part 11: Chapter 27

I finally got around to seeing this after putting it off. First, I put it off because I read a few bad reviews and wanted to clear their memory. Second, I wanted to avoid seeing it on the twentieth anniversary of John Lennon's murder. Couple of reasons for that last one. While I am a big Beatles fan I was a lukewarm fan of their solo work and thought the Double Fantasy album was an unsurprising mediocrity when it was released (I felt embarrassed by the single Starting Over). While I was aggrieved by Lennon's murder I didn't feel as personally crushed as those of the original generation of Beatles devotees. I was more outraged to learn that his murder had been at the hands of a born-again religious psycho. It seemed a disgustingly American way to be killed.

The Americans have done a bang up job of taking personal responsibility for the murder happening on their watch, as it were, and feel the guilt of it for the rest of the world. This is why a film about the murderer's last days before the act is inevitably as obsessive and psychologically claustrophobic as Chapter 27. It's why it has to be so quintessentially American. And it is ... but in a good way.

First good thing: the characterisation of Lennon is slight and blurred. He's not really a player in this, oddly enough, he's just a target. Second good thing: Chapman's mental state is the chief character, centre stage; the husk it inhabits, flabby and malleable, is a vehicle. Third good thing: Chapman's diconnection from the world he inhabits is depicted as being complete and irreparable: he is a perfect devotee.

These things are good in this account because they serve as antidotes to any sentimentality resident in any viewer who might be tempted to wrest the emotional centre of this account away from Chapman and drape it around Lennon's ghost. Chapman is alone in his universe and whether this is by his conscious agency or through psychological forces he is aware of the insurmountable difficulty he faces whenever he is called on to connect with anyone earthly (he considers Lennon to be something other). It's time to talk casting.

Jared Leto, normally so slim that he fronts an emo band outside of his acting gigs, has monstered up to resemble Chapman in a shocking transformation (he also looks a little like a young Stephen King). He speaks and thinks in a paper thin Georgian accent, a kind of straight Truman Capote. He makes brief definite statements that he offers like Christian leaflets. It's a pity Leto was winced at where Charlize Theron was celebrated for this kind of metamorphosis. It's possible he will never do anything as hazardous as this again which is a pity because he is good.

The other significant player in this film is someone who has similarly suffered the wrong kind of public attention; Lindsay Lohan. She's a fellow fan, loitering outside Lennon's palatial apartment building with a friend who doesn't quite share her obsession. Her name's Jude (yes, Chapman gets the line "Hey, Jude" but that's after she has said,"Hey, Mark, don't make it bad.") She's slight and geeky and takes to Chapman's intensity. There's a moment later where, though she is already understanding the danger of his condition she responds to his flattering encouragement as any teenager would. For a second on her face it's as though she has found her strength and purpose AND a soul mate. Then she remembers the words were spoken by someone she is starting to fear and her guard is immediately repaired. It's good stuff.

The reason this review is in the Rock on Film series of this blog and not by itself is that, despite nary a bar of rock music being played in it digetically or not, is that it's real theme, the big hard ice lake it's built on, is fandom. Chapter 27 is not interested in humanising Mark David Chapman (who'd listen?) or eulogising John Lennon (who hasn't?) it's interest is in illuminating the scary human capacity to replace the self with an assumed and unattainably distant identity. Chapman's obsession swings between the Bible and Catcher in the Rye and every time it swings past he gets a glimpse of Lennon: Lennon God, Lennon Sellout, Lennon Genius, Lennon Traitor.

The problem here is not that he scooped his being to make way for the star's like some terrifying Elvis impersonator, it's that he wanted to stay there, nestling beside the famous parasite, warm and feeding as long as they both should live. Obsession is derived from the Latin word for beseiged which is handy to know and remember whenever fandom manifests. The scary thing about Chapman, especially for Americans is that he is the distillate of that subservience, essential and execrable.

The film itself plays like an anaesthetised memory but is highly accessible for all that. The difficulty you might have in sitting through it will not be due to any nostalgic leanings toward John Lennon or any anger at Chapman, though. You might be reminded, however, that the grace of a few moments reason has saved you from the many seductive means of self annihilation offered every day. Be afraid of yourself. Be very afraid of yourself. Then you'll be dandy, I reggon.

Available locally. Watch it with A Hard Day's Night. No joke.

SHADOWS resumes screenings in March

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