October 6, 2008

Cornell Cinema: Life, Impersonated

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Diego Luna asks at the beginning of Mister Lonely, “Have you ever wanted to be someone else?” This question is the introduction to a magical film, composed almost completely of a surreal, bizarre metaphor about the loneliness of everyday life. The movie is, ostensibly, about the romance between a Micahel Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) and a woman who lives as Marilyn Monroe (Samantha Morton.) It speaks as well, however, about the masks that all people wear and the lies they try to escape. Mister Lonely is a film that is literary in its aspirations: mostly devoid of plot, it’s interested instead in the relationships and trials of people who are all lost, lonely, and falling in and out of love. Harmony Korine, the writer and director of the film, is usually known for nightmarish movies of strange and bizarre circumstances. Mister Lonely, however, despite the strange lives of its protagonists, is not about nightmares and fantasy, but human drama.
The movie takes place in a variety of picturesque places across the world. The commune that “Marilyn” invites “Michael Jackson” to is a castle in the remote reaches of the Scottish highlands. Her home there is alternately a refuge from a critical world or a failed utopia where the only inhabitants are celebrity impersonators. When he arrives, “Michael” meets “The Queen” (Anita Pallenberg), “Madonna” (Melita Morgan), “Abraham Lincoln” (Richard Strange), and Marilyn’s husband “Charlie Chaplin” (Denis Lavant). The cinematography is the beautiful love child of Diane Arbus, who photographed people on the fringes of society in her era — dwarfs, prostitutes, circus performers, transvestites — and Werner Herzog’s films of the jungle, drawing poignant clarity from all landscapes.
Korine is no doubt influenced by the work of Herzog; in a strange side plot, Werner Herzog himself makes an extended cameo as the charitable priest in Panama who is slowly brought into unexpected miracles of God. The sisters who work with him become the vessels of magic wrought by faith as they jump out of planes and learn to fly. Though their world seems completely unfamiliar to Michael and Marilyn’s, their trials and efforts at finding something to believe in are similar.
During the film, especially in the scenes at the Scottish castle, the lines between imagined personalities and reality start to blur: all the impersonators that Michael meets live the lives of their characters in their day to day lives. James Dean washes dishes with the Queen, smoking a cigarette, while outside, Shirley Temple and the Pope investigate the source of an epidemic among the sheep that live at the castle. Marilyn claims to Michael that at this refuge in the highlands, “You can live forever! Everyone is famous and no one ages!” However, it’s in the growing abyss between the fantasies of these social deviants and the reality of their lives that the film takes interest. Despite the picturesque world these impersonators have imagined for themselves, they find that cannot hide from the issues in their own relationships and their personal demons.
Mister Lonely sometimes becomes too entrenched in symbolism and surrealism; there are extended moments in the film where scenes are picturesque but meaningless. Harmony Korine’s ability to suspend disbelief and bring his audience into the fully-fledged world of these celebrity impersonators is his greatest strength and weakness. Though he is able to raise some dramatic and philosophical questions about the nature of peoples interactions, their interest in lying to themselves and others, and roles that are played and revealed in everyday life, the device of metaphor sometimes detracts from our sympathy with the characters. The audience is frequently forced to draw back and ask, “What the hell is going on!”
Regardless, Mister Lonely is a successful in its ability to raise questions, while answering few. Its visions of Michael Jackson, gyrating lonely and alone above a vast and empty sea, turn his question, “Have you ever wanted to be someone else?” to the audience, leaving us the film lonely and haunted by nostalgia.