Friday, January 26, 2007

Critiquing the Critics

Yoko Ono and David Geffen (right) emerge from Roosevelt Hospital just before midnight on December 8, 1980, moments after learning that John Lennon had died. From Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon. ©AP/Wide World Photos

I was not among the critics at Sundance this week who saw the much anticipated premier of Chapter 27, the film about the murder of John Lennon, written and directed by Jarrett Schaefer, and starring Jared Leto as Mark David Chapman and Lindsay Lohan as Jude, a Lennon groupie. Like most people, I’ll have to wait until it opens in theatres (or goes straight to DVD). Then, I’ll post my review here.

In the meantime, like most people, I’ve been reading the reviews and trying to figure out if Chapter 27 is an artistic travesty or a minor masterpiece. Keeping in mind that even great critics have their prejudices and agendas, and that no review should be taken at face value, I’m going to examine two diametrically opposing Chapter 27 reviews, and see what, if anything, can be learned.

The critique that’s been getting the most attention is the superficial hatchet job written by Roger Friedman of Fox News, who’s had it in for the film since he read the script last year and wrote a piece called “Chapter 27: A New Springtime for Hitler,” a reference to the Nazi musical from the Mel Brooks movie and play The Producers, put on for the purpose of defrauding investors by staging the biggest bomb ever seen on Broadway.

Friedman’s awkwardly titled review, “John Lennon Murder a Bore in New Film,” predictably describes Chapter 27 as “exploitative…dull, unimaginative, repetitive and without any redeeming cinematic qualities,” and points out that “most of the audience struggled to remain awake during the film’s lethargic 90 minutes.”

Friedman also says that Schaefer did no research, not even making clear what Chapter 27 means. This, of course, is what I’ve been wondering about since I started keeping this blog a year ago. Did Schaefer blatantly rip off the title after reading the section called “Chapter 27” in my Lennon biography Nowhere Man, and did he then use my research and reporting to fully explain in the movie that Chapter 27 is not only a reference to The Catcher in the Rye ending on Chapter 26, but also to “the triple 9,” a number of profound importance to Lennon, who was obsessed with numerology, Cheiro’s Book of Numbers, and particularly number 9 and all its multiples?

Apparently, he didn’t do the latter. Judging by this and other reviews (which also comment on the film’s slow pace), it seems that Schaefer probably did rip off the title, but did so only half-understanding what it meant. (Or perhaps understanding what it meant but seeing no need to fully explain it.)

This is a serious flaw. Even if Chapman himself was unaware of how Chapter 27 numerologically connected him to Lennon, when Schaefer chose Chapter 27 as his title, it became his obligation as a storyteller to find a way to make the audience aware of its significance. He could have done it many ways—say, a scene where Jude and Chapman stand in front of the Dakota discussing Lennon and number 9, with the sign for 72nd Street (27 reversed) visible in the background. (The Dakota is on the corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West.)

Frankly, I’ve never understood why Schaefer didn’t call the film Let Me Take You Down, the perfectly adequate and understandable title of the Chapman biography he drew the plot from, but which fails to show how Chapter 27 plays into the heart of Lennon’s numerology obsession—an omission that inspired the entire Chapman section in Nowhere Man.

Friedman makes one other interesting point in his review: He says that without permission from J.D. Salinger, the film lifts “wholesale” passages from his novel The Catcher in the Rye. He wonders if the litigious Salinger will sue.

But Friedman’s use of the word wholesale is questionable. I suspect that after much legal wrangling, Schaefer limited his “borrowing” to fragments of not more than 25 consecutive words, which, arguably, stays within the limits of “fair use.” I say arguably because the precise meaning of “fair use” is open to interpretation, and Salinger’s lawyers may, indeed, be frothing at the mouth.

But does Salinger, who recently turned 88, really want to put his remaining energies into suing the producers, Peace Arch Entertainment, especially when he despises publicity and probably doesn’t need the money?

I don’t know. But I do know that the people responsible for Chapter 27 are very good at getting publicity, and a lawsuit brought against them by J.D. Salinger (or his estate) would keep the movie in the public eye for years to come.

Andrew O’Hehir, who writes for Salon, had a take on Chapter 27 so dissimilar to Friedman’s you’d think he’d seen a different movie. In his thoughtful and generally evenhanded review, “Inside the Mind of the Man Who Murdered a Beatle,” O’Hehir provides the filmmakers with at least two lines they could use as advertising blurbs:

  • “Leto’s portrayal of [Chapman] is both merciless and sympathetic.”
  • “Schaefer’s movie creates its own highly compelling world.”

Which is to say that O’Hehir liked the movie. In fact, he thinks it serves as an example of what filmmaking is all about, which is fair enough. But curiously, he makes no effort to explain what the title means, nor does he say if the film itself does—indicating that he either thinks the title is irrelevant, or everybody already knows what it means.

Unfortunately, he’s wrong on both counts. As I’ve been saying for the past year, the only people who fully understand the meaning of Chapter 27 are those who’ve read this blog or Nowhere Man.