“To the Dreams That Make Us Who We Are” – Harmony Korine's 'Mister Lonely'

[I wrote this piece as part of a series called Love Fest, in which writers "produce write-ups about a film that they have a personal, passionate, unironic, burning love for...often defenses of films that had been deemed inferior by the larger film community"]

What does it mean for a movie to “work?” For some people, it’s as simple as the beat sheet laid out in ‘Save the Cat’ (page 8, theme stated; page 20, catalyst, etc). Others might feel like the PAGE Awards judge who once told me, “The three-act structure is hundreds of years old for a reason – use it.” But I think for most people it’s more like Justice Potter Stewart’s famous attempt to describe pornography: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description…but I know it when I see it.” This is all to say: by almost any measure, including my own amorphous one, Harmony Korine’s ‘Mister Lonely’ does not “work.” It’s a muddled, saggy film full of bold images that are arguably meaningless. And yet I love just about every minute of it. So it works, and in a very particular way.

It must be hard to be Harmony Korine.  He exploded into the film world in 1995 as the teenage screenwriter who shocked the world with Larry Clark’s ‘Kids,’ and was branded with infamy on sight. Every film he’s made since feels like a reaction to the one before it—‘Gummo,’ his first directorial effort, seems to be both a challenge (You think ‘Kids’ was upsetting? Get a load of THIS) and a catharsis (while Clark gave ‘Kids’ a documentary aesthetic, Korine got to establish his own eerie and perversely poetic voice). Of course, critics were distinctly unkind to ‘Gummo’ (Entertainment Weekly awarded it an enraged F, and The New York Times’ Janet Maslin declared it the worst film of the year), but it bears remembering that the film is, if nothing else, a singular vision created by a man barely old enough to buy liquor. He followed ‘Gummo’ with ‘Julien Donkey-Boy,’ the first American film to bear the certificate of Dogme 95, the austere filmmaking movement created by Lars Von Trier, and which feels even more like a provocation—if ‘Gummo’ was unpleasant, ‘Julien Donkey-Boy’ is borderline unwatchable. And then he stopped. In the next eight years, he directed a documentary short, a music video, and a documentary about magician David Blaine. It’s hard to be sure what else he did. He probably lifeguarded. He probably lived in Paris, watching his teeth fall out. He may well have gone to the Panama to live with a cult that searches for a rare fish—at least he claims he did. He had an invisible dog that he heard bark once. It’s hard to be sure what’s fact and what’s mythmaking, but as he told ‘Vice’ in 2008, “I just felt a general disconnection with things. I couldn’t really figure out what was going on and was pretty unhappy with where I was.” And so it was that in 2007, the enfant terrible of the 90s returned to feature filmmaking with a heartbreakingly sad, gentle, beautiful film called ‘Mister Lonely.’

“I don’t know if you know what it is like to want to be someone else. To not want to look like you look. To hate your own face.”

These are the first lines of dialogue in ‘Mister Lonely,’ and they’re spoken by a man known only as Michael. He’s a Michael Jackson impersonator played by Diego Luna, whose repertoire largely consists of gestures and high pitched ee-hees. Soon, he meets a woman who lives as Marilyn Monroe, and she brings him to Scotland to live in a castle inhabited by her husband, who lives as Charlie Chaplin, their daughter, who lives as Shirley Temple, and a group of assorted others—the Pope, Abraham Lincoln, James Dean, etc. For the rest of the film, they mostly lounge around the castle like college students on Saturday morning, all while ostensibly preparing to put on a show for the locals—the greatest talent show the world has ever seen.

Oh, right, and also there’s a parallel plotline involving Werner Herzog as a priest, and a group of nuns who decide to test their faith by jumping out of a plane with no parachute. It has no clear tie to the other plotline. Except that it does.

That’s the thing about this movie. It’s so oblique that it’s easy to dismiss, and Korine seems to be daring us to do so. It’s easy to look at the film and see only broad, grotesque scenes of Abraham Lincoln spinning a basketball while snarling the Gettysburg Address under a strobe light, or Buckwheat giving the weeping Pope a bath in a claw-foot tub in a Scottish field. They’re unique and audacious tableaus, seemingly designed only for the sake of shocking incongruity. And in interviews, Korine seems to shrug off the film—and all his work—like a kid afraid to show he gives a shit about an assignment he secretly worked all weekend on. When asked by Eric Kohn in IndieWire whether ‘Mister Lonely’ can be seen as allegory, Korine responded, “Sure, why not?” In a Q&A at Chicago’s Music Box Theater, he declared, “there’s always a misconception about [my films]…that there was something to be got.” And there’s nobility to the notion that his films are poetic more than cerebral, but his evident disdain for anyone attempting to find meaning in his work does a disservice to their artistry.

Of course, they forced his hand. “C'mon, Harmony,” Paul Tatara published on CNN after ‘Gummo,’ “Mano a boyo. What are you really trying to prove here? I know, I know. I'm such a toady to the straight-laced mass media, I couldn't possibly get the gist of anything as perceptive as a movie where kids shoot a comatose old woman in the foot with a BB gun and (gasp!) sweet little kitties get drowned and shot. I suppose you want to prove that audiences can still be shocked.” In the face of such intense condescension, all as punishment for trying to make art that matters to you, it must be easy to adopt an air of detachment—you think I’m trying to prove something? Fine, I’ll make a movie that tries to prove nothing at all.

But on my most recent viewing, I decided to ignore Korine and try to make some sort of sense of ‘Mister Lonely,’ and funny enough, it was a much richer experience than the first viewing, even if I’m still poring over my notes like a conspiracy wall on ‘Homeland.’ To be sure, this is a movie you feel, a movie of tone and image without much plot to speak of (and when there is something like plot, as when Charlie begins to sadistically punish Marilyn for what he perceives to be a flirtation with Michael, the film becomes dull and unpleasant), but there are themes that emerge, meaning to be found. It takes work, and it takes some leaps of interpretation, but it’s there. Maybe it’s a Rorschach test that shows me what I want to see. But art that claims to be anything else doesn’t tend to linger in the mind for very long.

So how DO those nuns tie in? There’s certainly no connection between the storylines, no moment when Michael reads a news story about nuns jumping out of planes. But I see a clear connection in the idea that ‘Mister Lonely’ is a movie about defiant optimism, about staunch belief in beauty when faced with a world that seems filled with pain, about rejection of suffering, your own and others’. The nuns use their planes to airlift food, an attempt to ease others’ suffering. The impersonators benefit the world by “keeping the spirit of wonder alive,” as claimed by the woman living as The Queen. But even if they can’t acknowledge it, these people all feel it’s too painful to live as they were born, and so have decided to reshape themselves as people they believe were worth something. It’s a film about refusing to hurt, made by a man trying to make sense of his own, a man who wanted his first film in eight years to feature a shirtless Charlie Chaplin, alone in the corner of a room endlessly repeating, “It’s going to be OK,” before settling on, “My life, it don’t count for nothing.”

“The Lord wants to test us,” a nun says. “He wants to see us fly.” And, in the end, Marilyn fails the test, succumbing to the pain she’s kept at bay. In her final scene, she tearfully asks Michael if anything ever really changes, a shocking desire to hear from a woman who’s devoted her life to stasis. And after the talent show, in which the impersonators joke and dance for a paltry, unenthused audience, she commits suicide. She can’t live as herself, and apparently she can’t find fulfillment as Marilyn, either.

Nor can the nuns fly—one of the final images is of their corpses on a beach—so they must have failed the test, too. Or maybe by even trying to fly, they failed the test. Or maybe there’s no test, and there’s no God. “They’re looking for answers,” a finally un-costumed Michael says as he finally walks among normal people. “What they don’t realize is they have found it already.” Live your life. Find meaning in being who you are. Don’t worry about tests. Don’t try to avoid suffering. Don’t run away and lose your teeth in Paris, don’t run away to hunt rare fish with a cult. Don’t hate your own face. “All I want is to find some purpose in the world,” Michael tells us at the beginning. By the end, he’s stopped trying, and so gotten to the point that he might finally be able to start.

This is a disorganized, stream-of-consciousness film, but it’s a document of a moment in a man’s life, as much a journal entry as the one Michael dictates—“It’s hard to always laugh when you don’t know what people find so funny.” It took a movie about people who try to be other people for Harmony Korine to tell us about himself.

“My intention with the movie was to…convey more of a sense of like – that there was a beauty, a magic to certain things, that I hadn’t understood before.” Harmony Korine in ‘Vice,’ 2008.

So does ‘Mister Lonely’ “work?” No. It’s a mess. It’s shapeless, it has no cohesive tone, it can be dull, it can be incredibly unsubtle. But it’s sincere, and raw, and funny, and truly bizarre, and it gives you material to chew on for days, if you so choose. It gives you the gift of watching Abraham Lincoln say fuck a lot. It works. It works really well.