Harmony Korine got addicted to crack, moved to Paris, and hit rock bottom… then he made 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 and to go completely unnoticed. I have always wanted to be someone else. I have never felt comfortable the way I am. All I want is to be better than myself, to become less ordinary and to find some purpose in this world.”
So begins Harmony Korine’s 2007 film Mister Lonely, ten years old this May. It’s the best movie about loneliness, relatable while still being upbeat, unapologetically weird, and plain-speaking. It’s about a motley crew of celebrity impersonators – Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin – that have created a commune. There they plan to stage a performance showcasing their talents for whoever will come. Jackson, moping around Paris in between busking for change and gigs dancing at a senior’s home, is looking for a connection. He doesn’t speak French, has no real friends. Then he meets Marilyn Monroe, who invites him to come live in their Scottish Highlands commune where impersonators perform every day in a place “everyone is famous.” Each character is a living metaphor for a celebrity gone too soon.
Korine knew true, paralyzing loneliness when he made the film, emerging the other side of a public breakdown somehow more creative than ever before. Nearly a decade of little output followed the release of his 1999 film Julien Donkey-Boy. He hit rock bottom, slipping into a deep depression. He spent nearly a year living in Paris “after I burnt out all my other countries,” he told Screen Comment. “I ran out of money, I ran out of friends, and I ran out of hope.”
In Paris, a crack and heroin addiction turned Korine into the walking dead. “My teeth were falling out,” he told us last year. By his own admission, he left his flat no more than four times. When he did, he wore shower caps and walked with two fully-loaded squirt guns. “I was walking the streets, I couldn’t speak the language, I had no one to talk to,” he said in an interview with New Statesman. To top it all off, two of his houses in America burnt to the ground, along with all of his possessions. The first he knew nothing about. The second, he fell asleep smoking. Leaving Paris, he pinballed from the jungles of Panama, where his parents currently live, to rehab – which he was encouraged to enter by friends Agnès B and David Blaine.
Harmony Korine hit self-destruct, but came back armed – like any Taylor Swift – with experiences from that time that could be manufactured into an uncompromising piece of work. He was well and truly alone. Perhaps he didn’t know it at the time, but Mister Lonely would become, I think, Harmony Korine’s purest film. He has often trafficked in exploitation of trailer trash culture, finding misfits and giving them their moment to tell a story. “I’ve always felt like everything seemed justified and beautiful,” he explained to Indiewire of his practice finding oddballs. “It almost seems like the reverse is disgusting – like, why wouldn’t you put these people in? They should be celebrated. Fuck it, life is too short.”
“I ran out of money, I ran out of friends, and I ran out of hope” – Harmony Korine
None of that is different in Mister Lonely. A scene at a senior’s home appears improvised, with toothless seniors gurning and clapping along to Jackson’s eccentric dance performance. Another plotline in the movie is about Werner Herzog, who plays a priest, and a group of nuns who fly in a cargo plane dropping care packages over needy communities. It doesn’t entirely make sense, but it still gnaws away at that feeling of not belonging.
We are living through the age of loneliness. While being more connected than ever before, we’re somehow more isolated. We’d rather broadcast live on Instagram than dial up a mate, rather talk to the front-facing camera about our crippling anxieties instead of a person who can talk back. We put cries for help in the Domino’s special requests box. Isolation has been labelled an epidemic by one University of Tokyo study, which examined the effects of Hikikomori, or isolating oneself from friends and shirking responsibility for a period of more than six months. Rates of depression have spiked in the UK amongst youth, increasing by 70 per cent in the past 25 years. One sobering headline puts it more bluntly: “Loneliness equals a pack a day.”
Statistics are depressing. Korine knows that, which is why defining experiences through a scene in a film can be exponentially more effective than any numbing data set. If it’s not helpful, it’s damn entertaining. Michael Jackson talks into a dictaphone when he’s by himself, on this island of misfit impersonators. While painting faces on eggshells (a hobby), one of Jackson’s recorded messages narrates his solitude. It’s an open letter. “Dear world and everyone in it,” he says, “…It’s hard to always laugh, when you don’t know what people find so funny.”
Harmony Korine isn’t the lone voice in Hollywood deftly characterizing loneliness. There’s also Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), the most potent scene coming when Charlotte gazes out of the window of her Tokyo hotel at the endless expanse of skyscrapers beyond, underscored by Squarepusher’s “Tommib”, reaffirming just how small she really is. Or in Coppola’s Somewhere (2010), about a deadbeat father reuniting with his daughter in the surrounds of LA’s Chateau Marmont. Nothing more accurately explains the effects of feeling lonely amongst people than literally falling asleep while personally entertained by a pair of pole dancers.
There’s Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013), a practically wordless two hours of alien ScarJo driving around Scotland. (Standout songs from the movie include “Lonely Void”). Also of note is Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, where reclusive curmudgeon Bill Murray pretends he is not lonely. It’s done well in the awkward dinner party scene in Frances Ha (2012), a great depiction of a high-functioning depressive soothing away anxiety with verbal diarrhea. And maybe you can hear it in the desperate, broken French of American tourist Carol, as she strolls through the 14th arrondissement in the best scene from Paris, Je T’aime (2006).
But those are examples of loneliness shoehorned into a big picture. Or else they just brush up against solitude for a brief moment. Mister Lonely doesn’t trot out loneliness like a plot device. It’s too wacky for navel-gazing. It comes more subtly, like in the fact that the main character is Michael Jackson, symbolically wearing a surgical mask and hiding behind his crotch grabs. It’s kind of that off-brand funny sad. Harmony Korine was able to channel his failures and feelings into this: one of the weirdest movies you’ll see that captures the crippling feeling of knowing a ton of people but having nobody to text. No, the movie isn’t incredible; it rewards patience. Hell, it’s not even the best film that I’ve mentioned here. But it’s certainly the best film about loneliness.
The second part of Michael Jackson’s opening monologue is proof that Mister Lonely is not totally pessimistic. There’s hope to be found as a freak. MJ says we can find solace in faking it until we make it. He whispers, in his own affected falsetto: “It is easier to see things in others, to see things you admire and then try and become that. To own a different face, to dance a different dance, and sing a different song. It is out there waiting for us, inviting us to change. It is time to become who we are not. To change our face and become who we want to be. I think the world is a better place that way.”