d. Harmony Korine / 2006 / UK-France-Ireland-USA / 148 mins
Viewed on: Force Entertainment DVD (Region 4)
First of all, I should probably admit to being something of a Harmony Korine fan. I’ve loved him ever since I picked up a VHS rental of Gummo, basing my selection purely on the back cover blurb and the wonderful image that adorned its front: Jacob Sewell sitting on a toilet, playing an accordian and wearing rabbit ears. Come to think of it, the first meaningful thing I ever wrote about film (that wasn’t for uni, anyway) was a little career retrospective thing on Korine for my (very) short-lived ‘zine, Incision. And in spite of all that, this was the first time I had seen Mister Lonely.
It was partly down to my general slackness, but also partly a result of circumstance: I couldn’t afford to travel to Melbourne to see its screening at MIFF 2007 and then I missed its extremely brief run in Adelaide, the Australian DVD was released after I had returned to the UK and the planned UK DVD never eventuated because Tartan went bust. An even larger part, though, was fear. After all, Mister Lonely didn’t get the most glowing notices and it certainly couldn’t stir up any sort of critical acclaim. Simply put, I was nervous about the fact that, following on from the sheer brilliance of Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy, Mister Lonely just might not be any good.
Well, I’m glad to report that – from my perspective at least – those assumptions were totally unfounded. It’s not a film I would recommend to most people, sure, and it certainly has its deficiencies, flitting between the brilliant and the banal and delving painfully close to bad sketch comedy territory at times. It also suffers from a relatively unsatisfactory and downright hokey final scene. Fairly minor complaints, though, for what is – for me – yet another unique and intriguing viewing experience from Monsieur Korine.
On the plus side, cinematographer Marcel Zyskind adds to Korine’s ever-excellent set pieces with a series of exquisite shot compositions, and the underlying obsession with vaudeville and the carnivalesque that is constantly simmering away beneath all of Korine’s films is more overtly in evidence here, as his love of music hall-esque nonsensical wordplay.
Plot-wise, Mister Lonely relates the tale of a Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) who, whilst struggling to make ends meet in Paris, meets his Marilyn Monroe equivalent (Samantha Morton) who invites him to join her at a commune in the Scottish highlands. There he meets Marilyn’s husband – Charlie Chaplin (Dennis Lavant) – her daughter, Shirley Temple and a whole host of impersonators including the Pope, the Queen of England, Abraham Lincoln, Madonna and James Dean. Running parallel to the central narrative is a curious subplot involving Father Umbrillo (Werner Herzog, in his second role for Korine) an eccentric missionary in South America, charged with supervising a band of skydiving nuns.
In terms of casting, Luna’s embodiment of Michael Jackson’s enigmatic side is spot on and Morton is at her usual brilliant best. That said, after seeing her in both Mister Lonely and Synecdoche, New York, I do begin to suspect that she has only one American accent at her disposal. As for Werner Herzog, I think we all knew – deep down – that he is a Minister of some sort. I suppose it just took his chief apostle to show us the light.
Once again, the parallels to Herzog’s own directorial ouvre are evident in the idea of microcosmic human worlds and the whole South American/religiousity subplot. But echoes also appear in one particular sequence that uses a rather Popol Vuh-sounding track by A Silver Mt. Zion immediately after Herzog’s monologue about the nuns, which sounds very much like him describing the two blind kids in Even Dwarfs Started Small (whilst wearing their goggles, no less!)
Generally speaking, it has been argued that Harmony Korine’s films are, at best, both disorganised and scatalogical. Mister Lonely, with its two parallel narratives and its focus on more subtle human compunctions, is – I think – somewhat less so. What isn’t said as often, however, is how totalistic his films are. You may disapprove the subject matter or deride his methods, but you will find it much harder to question the internal logic of Harmony Korine’s world/s.
Which brings me to a dream I had about twelve months ago, in which I tried to visit Harmony Korine on the highlands set of Mister Lonely. As one may expect from a dream, my attempts were thwarted repeatedly by Korine’s uncanny skill for evasion. One particularly vivid moment had me running towards a house in the woods after a tip-off, only to see Korine escaping in a helicopter.
And perhaps this is something of an unconscious analogy for the most common reaction to Korine’s films: people seem to like elements of them, or admire their audacity or the director’s boldness of vision, yet they remain acutely unable to partake in a wholehearted appreciation of his work. For many people, Harmony Korine simply proves too elusive a filmmaker. Perhaps that’s why I like him.
Next stop: Trash Humpers.