Talking Movies

December 15, 2019

From the Archives: The Killing of John Lennon

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

This film should not have been made as, apart from the dubious taste involved, it is deeply uncinematic. You could have someone read The Catcher in the Rye for two hours over an art installation style collage of alternating images of cornfields and New York City and it would be just as cinematic as The Killing of John Lennon. It would be a sight more interesting and would provide just as much genuine insight into the psyche of Lennon’s assassin Mark Chapman. Jonas Ball, who bears a startling resemblance to Rules of Attraction star Kip Pardue, is extremely mannered as Chapman. He confuses wild-eyed stares into the camera with insight into an extremely troubled mind, while director Andrew Piddington confuses exhaustive amounts of voiceover and detailed reconstructions of crime scenes with dramatic interest and momentum.

The problem with this film is its lack of context. We do not get an insight from the point of view of any other characters into the gradual decline of Chapman’s mental health, if that is indeed what happened. Instead all we get is a solipsistic voiceover by Chapman ‘justifying’ his actions by endless references to the hidden messages he finds in JD Salinger’s classic novel The Catcher in the Rye and his repeated self-pitying mantra that in finding his purpose in life, he lost himself. If Mark Chapman was a deeply troubled individual with a psychiatric condition he deserves sympathy but not freedom as he would still be dangerous. However the disturbing thought that can’t be shaken when watching this film and listening to the endless ramblings drawn from Chapman’s own diary entries and criminal testimonies is that there’s nothing wrong with him at all.

Was he merely a loser who at the age of 25 realised how to get out of taking any responsibility for the rest of his life by achieving a life of incarceration, and fame at the same time, by attaching himself to an icon? Just as John Wilkes Booth will always be remembered for assassinating Abraham Lincoln in a theatre, and JFK’s memory will always have the dark shadow of Lee Harvey Oswald hanging over it, so the John Lennon story ends with Mark Chapman…indeed the police chief who protects Chapman from lynching by an angry mob in the film explicitly references Lee Harvey Oswald. Chapman’s first journey from Honolulu to NYC to kill Lennon ends when he has an emotional epiphany while watching Ordinary People. This is a perfect point to walk out of the cinema as things only become more aggravating afterwards. Ultimately this film is so boring that when the timeline ‘12 hours 49 minutes left’ arrives you will wish Chapman would just shoot Lennon already and get it over with. No more savage indictment of this dubious undertaking could be made.

1/5

August 14, 2018

Heathers: colour me impressed

Heathers is running in the Lighthouse cinema all this week as part of a major 30th anniversary re-release that’s also playing at the BFI Southbank.

“Dear Diary, my teenage angst bullsh*t now has a body-count”. If Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is the teen movie that represents the boundless self-actualising optimism that Ronald Reagan wanted in an America where it was always morning in America, then Heathers was the counter-punch of Generation X cynicism and pessimism. There are three girls called Heather and an adopted member Veronica who rule the corridors of Westerberg High till a betrayal from within leads to a violent disintegration for the in-crowd. A film this biting and such a glorious one-off in the careers of writer Daniel Waters and director Michael Lehmann (who moved into script-doctoring and TV directing respectively) could only have come from deep personal bitterness. Winona Ryder stole Beetlejuice from the grown-ups and Christian Slater did the same in The Name of the Rose before they teamed up. Heathers is that rarity, a teen film with teen leads, who are an electric pairing. Winona lived off her performance as Veronica Sawyer for years and Slater did the same off his portrayal of JD, an inch-perfect impersonation of Jack Nicholson.

All the stock characters are present for this dark trip through American high-school life, which takes place in the pre-Columbine ear as is obvious from the muted reaction to the stunt played by JD in his memorable introduction. The stoners, the jocks: “Hey Ram, doesn’t this cafeteria have a no fags allowed rule? JD: Well, they seem to have an open door policy for assholes though don’t they”. The nerds, the airhead bitches: “God, aren’t they fed yet? Do they even have Thanksgiving in Africa? Veronica: Oh, sure. Pilgrims, Indians… Tator Tots. It’s a real party continent”. The hippie teacher, the deranged principal: “I’ve seen a lot of bullshit… angel dust, switchblades, sexually perverse photographs involving tennis rackets”. But these familiar elements are served up in the most vicious teen comedy ever. Instead of putting up with the ritual social humiliations JD and Veronica, after an initial accidental death, begin killing their enemies and make it look like suicide (courtesy of some underlined meaningful passages in Moby Dick, or in one memorable case simply the enigmatic word ‘Eskimo’.). Comedy doesn’t get much blacker than the interior monologues of the various characters. At the first funeral Heather Duke speaks to God: “I prayed for the death of Heather Chandler many times and I felt bad every time I did it but I kept doing it anyway. Now I know you understood everything. Praise Jesus, Hallelujah”.

Anyone who’s ever been picked on in school knows why Heathers is such a cult classic. This film is almost a proto-Fight Club. Superficially Veronica is happy with her life as one of The Heathers. However secretly she hates it, and herself, and when JD arrives at the school he offers Veronica a violent outlet for all her darkest impulses. She writes in her diary: “Suicide gave Heather depth, Kurt a soul, and Ram a brain. I don’t know what it’s given me, but I have no control over myself when I’m with J.D. Are we going to prom or to hell?” Just like Tyler’s Project Mayhem eventually JD’s plan to blow up the school after sneakily getting a petition for mass-suicide signed by everybody proves too much for Veronica to go along with. JD could be like Camus’ take on the ultimate excesses of nihilism: it is not enough to kill myself, everybody else has to die too. And that’s where Veronica rips up the ticket and gets off the ride, because Generation X were damaged romantics not nihilists. If you thought Mean Girls was the sharpest high-school film ever then you like, so need to watch Heathers. Your reaction should be something along the lines of JD’s legendary final words: “Colour me impressed”.

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