Monday, February 19, 2007

A Gift to a Dying Movie

I thought that I heard him laughing.
Detail from photo in Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon, Quick American Archives 2002. ©AP/Wide World Photos

Anybody who’s been reading this blog knows that I’ve spent the past few weeks trying to figure out how a seemingly clueless organization like engineered a PR coup that was the equivalent of The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight pulling off The Great Train Robbery. How were they able to inject into a high-profile gossip column, with impeccable timing, news of their boycott and then have that story flashed around the world in a variety of languages?

  • I suggested that they were a well-financed creation of Chapter 27’s producers, Peace Arch Entertainment.
  • I suggested that they were evil PR geniuses who’d formed a maverick agency and were drumming up business with an ugly but effective postmodern publicity stunt.
  • I suggested that they were a group of George Bush-style, ex-frat-boy publicity-hounds—who were fond of saying: “You’re either for the boycott or you’re for murder.”

But in my reverie, I’d overlooked the primary rule of solving any mystery: The simplest, most obvious answer is usually the right one. It’s now pretty obvious that is as misguided and naive as they appear to be. Ignoring the well-documented history of what happens when somebody tries to censor or repress in any way an “offensive” movie or other work of art, they handed executive producer John Flock a gift on a silver platter: a nasty, ongoing, headline-generating boycott for a movie of questionable quality that from the very beginning was in deep trouble with critics and fans and that has still not been picked up for theatrical distribution in the U.S. Flock, of course, accepted the gift graciously…and allowed his real public relations specialists to do what they’ve been doing so remarkably well for the past year: They put Chapter 27 back in the news, long after it should have died a natural death.

The boycott was a five-star success—for Peace Arch Entertainment. Even Yoko Ono loved it. Apparently forgetting that she’d coached Sean Lennon’s (former) BFF Lindsay Lohan in her role as Jude, a Lennon groupie who befriends Jared Leto’s Chapman a few days before the murder (Lohan says Ono gave her “the confidence” she needed to play the part), the reigning Queen of Media Manipulation told Entertainment Weekly, of the two thousand people who’d signed the boycott petition, “It’s very sweet of them. John would have thought so, too.”

Ono—whose spokesman, Elliot Mintz, is also on Paris Hilton’s payroll—understands perfectly well that all publicity is good, free publicity is better, and free, sympathetic publicity is best of all. She knows that two thousand people, in the scheme of things, is a miniscule number, and if the boycott accomplished anything, it probably made 200,000 people who couldn’t have cared less about the movie very curious to see it. And if John Lennon is paying attention somewhere, I think he’s laughing his balls off at the sheer absurdity of it all. (I’m finding it pretty funny myself, and I haven’t even seen the movie yet. Note to John Flock: Please send screener. Maybe I can help.)

The Howard Stern Show

One thing that did surprise me about the boycott was a comment that a reader posted about my last piece, “What Are They Going to Do for an Encore, Burn the Book?” That the comment was typical of the ridicule and innuendo that people associated with tend to post in response to anybody who disagrees with them wasn’t surprising. That it came from Fred Norris—who I later learned is a soundman and on-air personality on The Howard Stern Show—was astonishing.

Stern, whom I’ve listened to enough to respect and occasionally admire, is a veritable free-speech martyr, and it’s mind-boggling that anyone who works on the show and makes his living pushing the bounds of “good taste” could support a boycott that’s trying to repress a legitimate artistic endeavor, no matter how offensive he might find it. Norris, apparently, has learned little about the concept of free expression in the 28 years he’s been with Stern, and it makes me wonder if he’s ever read the Boycott Chapter 27 blog, which, last time I looked, seems to have transformed itself into an educational site, burying their hate speech under piles of academic verbiage that nobody’s ever going to read.


I’d said in response to Norris’s derisive comments about Nowhere Man that the book was a bestseller in four countries and three languages. Actually, it’s five countries; I’d forgotten that we’d killed in Colombia, too. (For the record, Fred, the other countries are the U.S., England, Mexico, and Japan. And though it sold out in Chile as well, there weren’t enough copies in print for it to technically qualify as a bestseller.)

A Final Word (I Hope) on the Boycott

People attempt to repress or censor works of art out of hate, fear, ignorance—and a deep-seated belief that they alone have been divinely anointed to judge the quality and intent of works that, more often than not, they haven’t seen. But these boycotts always fail, because their instigators ignore one of the most fundamental laws of human nature: The best way to get people to look at something is to tell them they can’t look.

And Now a Relevant Word from My Wife

My wife, Mary Lyn Maiscott, blogs for Vanity Fair. Today she posted the following on their Oscar site, Little Gold Men:

Jackie Earle Haley’s Monster Performance

Quick plea: If you haven’t done so already, go see Little Children. Though I went for the reliable and wonderful Best-Actress-nominated Kate Winslet (who should get a special award for her willingness to forgo any discernible makeup), I was particularly moved by Jackie Earle Haley, nominated for Best Supporting Actor. In contrast to the somewhat cartoonish men (husband, lover) in the life of Winslet’s character, Sarah, Haley portrays neighborhood pedophile Ronnie as a complex, perplexing man, whose conflicting feelings and urges emanate from the large blue eyes in his cavernous face. Some of the best art shows us the humanity of people that society often deems monsters, and, though its extremely unlikely Haley will win the Oscar—what with Eddie Murphy’s perfect, pumped-up Dreamgirls performance—his portrayal of a tormented sex offender who loves his devoted mother and tries to pursue a “normal” life puts him in the Charlize Theron/Kevin Bacon/Jared Leto line of commendable, risk-taking actors. This film refuses to be predictable and pat in other ways as well; note the diverse reactions to a pedophile in the midst of a family-oriented suburban neighborhood. It also pulls the rug out from under us just as we’re about to—hey, just go see the movie.

Monday, February 12, 2007

What Are They Going to Do for an Encore, Burn the Book?

Long before Mark David Chapman was autographing copies in his jail cell, The Catcher in the Rye was a perennial bestseller.


In my previous posting “With Enemies Like This, Who Needs Friends?” I suggested that to generate publicity for their film Chapter 27
—starring Jared Leto as Mark Chapman and Lindsay Lohan as Jude, a Lennon groupie—Peace Arch Entertainment created and continues to finance Such a tactic is hardly farfetched. With the notable exceptions of O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson, the Golden Rule of Hollywood is: All publicity is good, no matter what they say. Press coverage means interest, and interest means distribution deals and ticket sales. Any time the government or any group attempts to boycott or censor a work of art (and I use the term “art” in the broadest possible sense), everybody wants to find out for themselves what all the fuss is about. So they run to see it. It never fails.

The classic example, which I cited a year ago in one of my first postings, “Astute Readers, Aspiring Censors, and IMDB: The Chapter 27 Page,” is Richard Nixon’s 1972 attack on Deep Throat. The week the Watergate scandal broke, Nixon, in an attempt to distract the country, ordered the FBI to shut down every theatre showing the film, confiscate the prints, and arrest the filmmakers and actors on obscenity charges. The result: a mediocre porn flick, shot in a week for $25,000, became the 11th-highest-grossing film of 1973, with earnings of over $600 million, and Linda Lovelace became the world’s first porno “superstar.”

I also pointed out that long before Mark David Chapman was autographing copies of The Catcher in the Rye in his prison cell, the book was a perennial best-seller, thanks in part to the high school principals all over America who’d been banning it for 29 years.

And in 1999, of course, there was Rudy Giuliani’s attempt to shut down the “Sensation” exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum because one of the paintings, Chris Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary,” was partially composed of elephant dung, and the former New York mayor found it offensive. The result: 170,000 people, the most that had come to the museum in a decade, showed up to look at the painting.

Publicity is not an easy thing to come by. A person’s name (or the name of an organization) does not end up in a high-profile gossip column by accident. In general, if you want to see your name in boldface, you have to pay a well-connected PR firm between $3,000 and $10,000 per month to pull the required strings; some authors have been known to spend their entire advance on a month of PR—with no guarantees.

That the Chapter 27 boycott was the lead item in a gossip column in the New York Daily News just as Chapter 27 was being buried under an avalanche of less-than-kind reviews following its Sundance premiere, and that the story was then flashed around the world, seemed too well timed, and far too sophisticated a result for an organization whose blog, at best, rises to the level of coherent hate speech.

So I raised the question: Is an arm of Peace Arch Entertainment?

The people behind were not happy with this, and, predictably, they responded with an invective-and-innuendo-filled diatribe that questioned everything from my sexual orientation to my research methods. But they didn’t answer the question.

So I went to their blog and asked them flat out: Are you now taking, or have you ever taken, money from Peace Arch Entertainment, or any individual or corporate entity affiliated with Peace Arch Entertainment? A simple yes or no will suffice.

They said no, they weren’t taking money from Peace Arch Entertainment.

Whether this is true or not I can’t say. Though, for the time being, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are who they say they are and what they seem on the surface to be: a loosely knit coalition of Chapman-hating businessmen and lawyers, apparently based in Pompano Beach, Florida, who have a lot of free time, who have money to burn on PR, who want to destroy Peace Arch Entertainment as punishment for having made Chapter 27, and who routinely respond on their blog and elsewhere with hateful (and often incoherent) rants to any suggestion that their boycott is ill-conceived or counterproductive, or that people, if they’re so inclined, should just go see the movie and make up their own minds about it.

Since their boycott began a year ago, Chapter 27 has:

  • Had its world premiere at Sundance.
  • Had its European premiere at the Berlin Film Festival.
  • Been picked up for theatrical distribution in Europe, Asia, and South America.
And as the controversy continues to fuel the fire, it certainly looks as if, despite the overwhelmingly savage reviews, Chapter 27 will reach a mass American audience, even if it’s only in select “art houses” and on DVD—because people are curious and they want to see it.

So why then are these presumably successful businessmen and attorneys boycotting the film if their boycott is doing the exact opposite of what they claim to want? Why are they breathing life into a movie that most critics have written off as a vanity project lacking in insight?

They could be completely delusional, I suppose. Or they could be a newly formed PR agency, drumming up business with an ugly but effective postmodern publicity stunt. (They did offer to boycott my next book for $5,000.) Or more likely they’re just a couple of ex-frat boys into publicity for publicity’s sake: they enjoy reading about themselves in the tabloids, and that’s all there is to it.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

With Enemies Like This, Who Needs Friends?

So much has been written about Chapter 27 since I posted “Critiquing the Critics,” I’ve pulled the sampling of reviews that originally appeared at the tail end of that piece (and that I was adding to every day) and I’ve posted them at the end of this piece—for the purpose of putting into perspective some of the events that have been swirling around the film since it premiered at Sundance two weeks ago.

The first Chapter 27 reviews to appear, with the notable exception of
the one in Salon, were negative in the extreme. Led by Roger Friedman of Fox News, they were the critical equivalent of a stomping and chain whipping administered by the Hell’s Angels. It seemed as if the bad reviews had opened an insurmountable lead. But then, spurred on by high-profile publicity about the Chapter 27 boycott—which created a backlash to the backlash—the film rallied in the second half. Critics writing for such magazines as Entertainment Weekly and The Hollywood Reporter liked it, and put Chapter 27 back in the game.

Of the 12 reviews I’ve discussed so far (including the excerpts and links to the 10 posted below, one of which does acknowledge the overlooked numerology angle), the score is as follows:
  • Thumbs Down: 8
  • Thumbs Up: 3
  • Thumbs Sideways: 1
In other words, though the bad reviews still hold a substantial lead, thanks to the Chapter 27 boycott, there’s a controversy brewing that’s keeping the film in the news, and that will—if I were to place a bet—lead to theatrical distribution.

The boycott publicity, in fact, was so well orchestrated that I began to wonder if Peace Arch Entertainment, the film’s producers, were funneling money to If so, how much, and is there a reduced rate for independent journalists? Because if their prices aren’t too high, I’d like to hire them to organize a boycott of my next book. To steal a line from Hogan’s Heroes: “With enemies like this, who needs friends?”

One thing that both the critics and boycotters seem to be overlooking is that if the filmmakers have proven anything, it’s that they’re determined and probably a little crazy. And even if Jared Leto has to sit in a mailroom stuffing DVDs into envelopes, and Jarrett Schaefer has to type the address labels and seal the flaps with his personal spit, they’re going to find a way get Chapter 27 into the hands of its audience.

In any case, here are excerpts and links to 10 Chapter 27 reviews:

Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly says: “The film may tell you little about Chapman that you didnt already know, but Jared Leto, who gained 65 pounds for the role, disappears inside this angry, mouthbreathing psycho geek with a conviction that had me hanging on his every delusion.”

Duane Byrge of The Hollywood Reporter says: “Jared Leto is mesmeric as the bloated, deranged Chapman. It’s a brilliantly measured performance, evincing the tale of a madman through his own awful rhyme and reason.”

Dennis Harvey of Variety says: “Chapter 27 peers into the mind of a real-life, insane killer and finds almost nothing of interest.”

Scott Weinberg of says: “I know it has something to do with J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, but any other specifics are lost beneath waves of babble, tedium and pretense.”

Ty Burr of the Boston Globe says: Writer-director Jarrett Schaefer never convincingly explains the demons that drove Chapman. The result is an unpleasant act of cinematic rubbernecking that celebrates a deserved nonentity.

Kevin Polowy of says: “Most of the ‘action’ takes place as Chapman waits and waits (and waits) for Lennon outside of his famous Dakota Building apartment in Manhattan, with an occasional argument between the voices in the assassins head to stir things up a bit.”

Nick Marshall of Cynematik says: “J. P. Schaeffer played it too safe.” says: “Chapter 27 is worth seeing for Leto’s performance and the remarkable transformation that he went through to become Chapman, but the film isn’t that strong otherwise, and its slow, meandering pace tends to be its undoing.”

Eric D. Snider, who reports derisive audience laughter during at least one scene, writes on his blog: “There’s no insight, no analysis, nothing. Just Jared Leto talking to himself for 90 minutes.”

Jeremy Mathews, writing on, says: “Chapter 27 relies on the concept that following an insane person around for three days will provide you with great insight into his character. But if all the character in question does is make Catcher in the Rye references and speak in an annoying whisper that’s supposed to be sinister, it doesn’t really offer any insight into why he killed John Lennon.”


While we’re on the subject of reviews, here’s a link to a one about Nowhere Man that was published in the Fall 2006 issue of the Oakland University Journal. “Let Me Take You Down in a Cyn Sandwich: The Profoundly Paradoxical Mind of John Lennon,” by Brian Murphy, Emeritus Professor of English, compares Nowhere Man to six other Lennon books: Cynthia Lennon’s A Twist of Lennon and John, Yoko Ono’s Memories of John Lennon, Fred Seaman’s The Last Days of John Lennon, Elizabeth Partridge’s John Lennon: All I Want Is the Truth, and Marion Winik’s Above Us Only Sky.

It’s a very good introduction to the ever-expanding genre of Lennon biographies.