Archive for Harmony Korine

Mister Lonely: Or why Harmony Korine is a cut above his contemporaries, ala Asia Argento, Chloe Sevigny, Michael Pitt and Gus Van Sant, although its important to note that since starting this article Van Sant made Milk, which is probably his finest picture, although he did try to remake Psycho, which cancels out anything good he will ever achieve.

Posted in close analysis with tags , on March 9, 2009 by babydylan


It is easy to question the intent behind art films if the filmmakers involved are young – I am not saying it is right, I am just saying it is easy – because if they are then we are quick to assume that they are just being pretentious. Harmony Korine is only 32, yet it has been said by Bernado Bertolucci that “he has created a revolution in the language of cinema” and when he saw Gummo (Korine’s first film) for the first time, Werner Herzog said that Korine has a “very clear voice in a generation of filmmakers that are taking a new position”. Yet when I asked a lady in JB if she had Mister Lonely on DVD, she told me that she “hated” Harmony Korine, I asked her why, and she didn’t answer, she just said again that she “hated” him (perhaps she is jealous of the respect he has at such a young age, that is an easy thing to give into, my respect for Michael Pitt is a combination of both love, and jealously at how effortlessly cool he is for someone whose 27…it is mostly love though).

Korine’s artistry as a filmmaker has been a gradual process, from having been a screenwriter for other filmmakers, to directing his own, fairly unconventional debut feature, to directing a vivid and compelling second feature that suited its subject matter, to creating a third film that is poignant, symbolic, and arresting, whilst being genuinely entertaining. It is not just me who thinks this (although I’m sure I love it more than others). It was greeted with applause at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and one IMDb user described it as being similar “to the time Dylan went electric”. Love it or hate it, it remains compelling.

Sometimes I’ll see a David Lynch film, and I’ll be thinking after it, and I’ll be thinking and thinking and thinking and then I’ll wonder, is there a meaning in this film? Am I looking for something that isn’t there? Does David Lynch have his tongue planted firmly in check, and are some people to afraid to admit that they think his pictures are pointless and overrated ala The Emperor’s New Clothes (he has said that he understands his films, but I have heard also that he writes each page of dialogue the day he shoots it). It was great to see that people in a class I had last year were not afraid to admit their contempt for Lost Highway, but that’s just one class, and that’s just one of his films. Despite not liking his work, I do find that his pictures have that element that keeps the audience transfixed, that makes them leave the cinema discussing his work, an element similar to a Mister Lonely (Obviously the lady in JB disagrees with me).

As mentioned before his filmmaking has been a gradual process. Kids (which Korine wrote) takes place over one day in New York City where Jennie (Chloe Sevigny) is trying to find Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), so as he can be told that she has contracted AIDS from him. Gummo concerns strange, offbeat characters living and working in the town of Xenia, Ohio, a place that never fully recovered after being completely destroyed by a tornado. Julien Donkey-Boy – visually, Korine’s most original and arresting film – concerns the schizophrenic Julien and his relationships with his war obsessed, abusive father, his wrestling obsessed brother, and his pregnant (possibly with Julien‘s child) sister.

Mister Lonely is the latest in a series of films that have all had a preoccupation with identity, despite how differently they have all explored this idea. His previous work has portrayed various levels of deranged characters living and acting in a sad environment, Korine has never took a moral standpoint on their actions, nor has he question their motives. It could be said therefore that he has made – perhaps unintentionally – a subtle comment on the influence of our surroundings on our identity. Mister Lonely does not make the same kind of literal comment, rather it asks a deeper question about ourselves and who we are by including characters who lack any identity, and who have latched onto another persona.

Shortly after the film begins a quiet, soft-spoken voice asks the audience if we know what its like to truly dislike ourselves, and to wish that we were another person. We are shown scenes of Nuns, living and working in a secluded Mission. Some are walking, some are playing sport, some are smoking, and one is baptising a newly born baby. A Michael Jackson impersonator – who narrated the start of the film – wonders the streets of Paris, busking and performing for the public (who we suspect think ‘Michael’ is a real busker). He meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator whilst performing at a nursing home. They chat and he learns about a Castle in Scotland, or a commune, which is occupied only by other impersonators, who help work the land together and perform for each other. Marilyn lives there, as well as her husband Charlie Chaplin, their daughter Shirley Temple, and an assortment of friends including James Dean, Madonna, The Pope, The Queen, The Three Stooges, Abraham Lincoln and Sammy Davis Jr: In short, some of the most iconic entertainers and historical figures ever. Marilyn begs for Michael to go to the Castle with her (“We need a Michael, we don’t have a Michael”), shortly thereafter he agrees to go.

Once Michael is at the Castle it becomes apparent to the audience just how ‘completely’ the characters embody the celebrities they are impersonating. They introduce themselves as that person – “Hi, I’m Shirley Temple. Hi, I’m Sammy Davis Jr, etc”, and they always wear the costume, or some form of it, that is synonymous with the character, i.e. James Dean always wears the red jacket and white t-shirt combo, Madonna always wears that weird pointy bra.

As the film progresses it becomes apparent that the impersonators are not as happy as Marilyn had made them appear to Michael, despite how perfectly they embody the celebrity they are impersonating. We can assume that Michael’s monologue at the beginning of the film is applicable to all the impersonators, therefore their efforts to become another person stems from both a dislike for themselves, and a desire to be someone else. By highlighting Marilyn and Charlie’s unhappy marriage, and by gradually increasing the friction between all the characters – especially as they gather together to rehearse their final show – Korine suggests that issues are commonplace, despite whether you are being yourself or someone else. This is highlighted by the three main celebrities all having being embroiled in their own real life disasters. Charlie Chaplin – along with William Randolph Hearst, the inspiration for Citizen Kane – was involved in a murder upon a yacht (it was portrayed in the excellent Peter Bogdanovich film, The Cat’s Meow). Marilyn Monroe was found dead after an overdose of sleeping tablets (rumoured by some to have been orchestrated by the CIA because of her affair with JFK), and Michael Jackson……say no more.

Cut in with this main storyline is a subplot involving the nuns at the beginning of the film, who are working in a mission overseen by an eccentric erratic priest, played by the equally eccentric, erratic filmmaker Werner Herzog. While flying across a secluded village – the nuns are throwing the villagers bags of grain – the aircraft does a sharp turn and one of the nuns falls from the plane. Whilst falling through the air, her voice is heard praying, asking that God save her from death. She falls to the ground, yet stands up and walks away, completely unharmed. The mission has become witness to some genuine real life miracles. After this happens for the first time, the nuns begin to take advantage of the ‘miracles’ by repeatedly jumping out of the aeroplane because their faith in God will guarantee them a safe landing each time. Juxtaposed next to the impersonators foolish attempts to leave their old selves behind, is the real, genuine intervention of God on the lives of those who have devoted themselves to him. Their faith in God is as passionate as the Michael’s efforts to be Michael, and Marilyn’s efforts to be Marilyn.

As well as the points mentioned before, the picture is also suggesting that we are only ever familiar with the surface of the person – despite how well we think we know them – much like image of the celebrities in Mister Lonely (Recently I read a speech made by Abraham Lincoln that was so much more racist and dogmatic than anyone would expect from him. I was shocked). Marilyn – and all the characters – has occupied only the body of one of the most famous actresses ever, not the mind, and her mind remains a mystery until the harrowing finale when she commits suicide. After this happens, Michael leaves the Castle and returns to Paris, where he day dreams a conversation between him and the deceased Marilyn. He asks why she left, to which she responds that she didn’t leave, she succeeded at being an impersonator. This could mean that her suicide was an attempt to completely become Marilyn (who some believe committed suicide), it could be that she thought that suicide was the final step in being an impersonator (because they were completely leaving behind their real selves) or finally, she may have felt melancholy because her personal problems had not escaped her, despite her efforts to be someone else. The choice of title would support this, although the conversation between her and Michael would imply otherwise. Is she in denial? The ideas explored in the picture would suggest so.

The film ends with Michael no longer being Michael, the same character wonders the streets of Paris once more, this time without make-up and in casual dress, looking and commenting on the banality of being normal. Of being like the hooligans who are surrounding Michael in the final frames, those who work, go home, and on the weekends, ply themselves with alcohol and run around like crazy singing the French National Anthem with the vague hope of getting laid being permanently fixed in the back of their minds (this is not just a weekend thing). Michael is angry and frustrated at the thought of being normal (he wants us to be angry to) and when he ‘gives up’ it is as though he is resigning himself to an unhappy life, a boring life. While at the Castle, the impersonators pet sheep fell ill and died. Sheep graze together, and ‘sheep’ is a term used to describe those who band together and follow one another. To Michael the thought of dying is as threatening as the thought of being a ‘sheep’, of being like those who surround him in the final scenes. Whoever these people are they are happier than Michael has ever been.

The final, harrowing frames of the picture shows the flaming wreckage of a plane that the nuns and the priest have used to fly to another country, a plane which has crashed and killed all on board. The nuns lie dead on a beach, a startling image to accompany Michael’s final speech on normality. Have the nuns payed the ultimate price for taking advantage of the generosity of God? The film concerns those who are hoping for a miracle, and those who have seen miracles. The deaths can only be a statement on the value of human life and the need for both the audience and the impersonators to appreciate it.