Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Man in the Mirror

For eight years, no one heard anything about Harmony Korine, the filmmaker whose movies had a knack for provoking equal measures of revulsion and acclaim. After the 1999 release of his Dogme 95-inspired Julien Donkey-Boy, Korine gave up filmmaking and descended into heroin addiction and disillusionment. He went to Paris, where he found inspiration for his latest movie, Mister Lonely, a story of emotional isolation that seems more than a little autobiographical.

The son of a documentary filmmaker, Korine was discovered at 22 by photographer Larry Clark and wrote the screenplay for Clark’s Kids, a look at the sex- and drug-filled escapades of Manhattan teens. But it was his own directing debut, Gummo, in 1997 that made him notorious. The movie was a lurid collection of vignettes depicting white-trash residents of tornado-stricken Xenia, Ohio. Its repulsive imagery, including cat drowning, a gay dwarf, and a boy who pimps out his retarded sister, sent many walking out of theaters and made him a darling of the avant-garde. Director Werner Herzog claimed a shot in Gummo of bacon stuck to a bathroom wall “knocked me off my chair.” Roger Ebert rhapsodized that Korine is “the real thing, an innovative and gifted filmmaker whose work forces us to see on his terms.”

Well, yes, it does. But that doesn’t mean it’s good. Some people think that if a movie is hard to watch, it must be Art, but in Korine’s case that’s a stretch. His films are amateurish, grotesque, incoherent and plodding, managing the incredible feat of being both outrageous and boring.

That said, Mister Lonely, which Korine wrote with his brother Avi, is something of a stylistic departure. Opening with a slow-motion shot of a lone bicyclist set to the saccharine Bobby Vinton song “Mister Lonely,” the movie is about an unhappy Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna of Y Tu Mamá También) who goes to live in a commune in the Scottish Highlands inhabited by celebrity impersonators.

It is not a good film, but it has a sweetness unexpected from the director who once tried making a movie of himself provoking real street fights to the point of near death. The Jackson impersonator, who laments in his narration that he has “always wanted to be someone else,” moonwalks for spare change on the streets of Paris. He performs at an old folks’ home, where he urges the residents to live forever. “Don’t die, don’t die!” he chants with endearing absurdity.

Into this scene glides an ethereal Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton), who invites Michael to join her and her husband, a Charlie Chaplin impersonator (Denis Lavant) at the commune. Michael eagerly joins the bucolic group that includes replicas of The Pope (James Fox), The Queen (’60s icon Anita Pallenberg), Madonna (Melita Morgan), Abe Lincoln (Richard Strange), James Dean (Joseph Morgan), the Three Stooges, and so on.

A second, irrelevant plot involves a group of Panamanian nuns who discover, on an airplane mission to drop food, the power of miracles through skydiving. (Their priest is played by Werner Herzog, who often acts in Korine’s movies.) Korine’s films suffer from attention-deficit disorder: he seems captivated by certain absurd images, such as nuns floating out of airplanes or Buckwheat washing the Pope’s hair, but is utterly unable to make meaningful connections among them.

Not much happens in Mister Lonely. Were it not for the endearing presence of Morton and Luna, it would be almost completely intolerable. The commune’s sheep get sick, so there is a mass slaughter mourned by the fake celebrities; the effect is like Hud remade by Andy Warhol, though a lot less interesting than that sounds. The impersonators put on a musical show. The closest thing to a real story is the chaste flirtation between Michael and Marilyn, which provokes the jealous rage of her husband, with sad results.

The movie’s indifferent production values and borderline ineptitude evoke an older style of underground movie, before indie films became slick studio products. Korine, now 35, is himself a throwback, which may be why the subject of Michael Jackson appealed to him; it’s the story of a reclusive outsider whose cultural relevance has passed, and who finds grownup life intolerable.

Occasionally Korine stumbles into a moment of beauty. There is a surprisingly touching scene, late in the movie, in which a collection of eggs Michael has painted to resemble his commune friends magically come to life and sing. Michael talks with the egg “Marilyn,” who helps relieve his existential sadness.

It’s just one scene, following nearly two hours of maddening boredom, but it suggests what Korine, if he were capable of artistic discipline, could achieve.

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