Finding your outer self: Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely

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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. 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. – Michael in Mister Lonely

Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely (2007) is the perfect follow up to my discussion of Vikram Gandhi’s Kumaré (https://nocturnaluproar.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/lessons-from-kumare-and-the-chair-couch/). I think the film’s critique can be framed in two ways: the first is against the recent production of what can be safely called, without judgment, hipster films. The recommended films on Mister Lonely‘s IMDB page: two by Wes Anderson, Todd Solondz’s Happiness, Ghost World, and Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know. What the formal or narrative elements of a hipster film are won’t be defined here, but I’ll make brief reference to it at the end. What is more interesting is the message Korine seems to give us, namely, the impossibility of being/finding/having a true self. Perhaps this point ties in with the mockery of hipster aesthetics, films, worldview, whatever.

We have the story of Michael, a young man who cannot quite find a place in the world, cannot gain acceptance, credibility, friends, a stable income, all the things we so often take for granted and also those things that concern us daily. Michael meets Marilyn and she asks Michael to come stay with her and others like him who cannot be themselves in normal, average, bland culture and society. They have a house, a sort of ranch, far from the ordinariness of Paris. Everyone who resides there works together and shares the space, a little place where that real, true, and authentic self can just be. What can Michael and Marilyn and all the others be while there? Impersonators. Everyone at this locale is an impersonator, from Abraham Lincoln to Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, and Charlie Chaplin (played by the under-appreciated Denis Lavant).

Michael and Marilyn

Michael and Marilyn

Korine’s irony then is also the truth of how we carry ourselves; we can find autonomy on a ranch but that self that we bring will never be the authentic self we hope it really will be. Or rather, that true self we bring is always constructed, something already exterior to what we believe to be our core, our interior, our soul. The self will always be something else; in this film, we call it a celebrity. Thus none of the characters have real names – what is a real name? – but call each other by their persona. They can each move, sing, dance, perform, in perfect freedom. “I have always been Michael,” Michael says, and others seem to be much the same.

After we are introduced to the ranch, the impersonators decide to put together the greatest spectacle on Earth, i.e., a show starring them and all that they offer. Together they construct a theater space (as poor a space as one can imagine), advertise with flyers and word of mouth, and practice their routines. People will come, they each say. The night of the performance arrives. Korine provides us what seems like the whole of the greatest show on Earth, mostly consisting of dancing and not really any direct impersonating at all, other than the outward appearance of course. The show is naturally not much of a spectacle and upon its completion we cut to a crowd of about 5 individuals barely applauding. The impersonators gather round then, with sad faces, and bemoan the reluctance of a world which does not wish to recognize their talents – which is to say accept and recognize them for what they are, the truth of their identity, soul, what have you. The impersonators finish their brief spat of sadness and start their walk back to the large home. On their way Marilyn is discovered hanging from a tree. Why is she there? The world has again failed to respond to her true being, that self she perceives herself to be, Marilyn Monroe. The impersonators have allowed the world to enter their isolated space; they desired to reveal themselves and to everyone’s dismay no one cared, and so she committed suicide.

This conclusion is reinforced in two further ways. The first is the remarks by the Queen to wrap up the performance. She thanks the audience for bearing witness to their souls. Secondly, at the end we return to an office featured earlier in the film. Therein we find Renard, played by director Leos Carax, and Michael, his outfit and hair returned to normal. Carax tells him that this is not himself, he cannot accept this man as other than Michael. What will you become, who are you, he asks? Michael does not know. He will fit in, be one of the normal individuals who dress and act with the status quo.

Carax refusing Michael’s everydayness is significant if we think about the director’s recent masterpiece Holy Motors (2012). This is a film that follows in the footsteps of Mister Lonely. In both we have the assertion that life, whether in the normal everydayness or in the front of the camera, is performative. We don certain garbs, accents, gestures to match the occasion, to find a place within the world. It is the world then which shapes that self which we think we are; wherever we end up – secluded ranch or otherwise – we bring with us what exterior elements have molded us into. Carax must have already been on this mode of thinking, gearing up for Holy Motors (and it would not be too difficult to read it back into his oeuvre I think), thus his appearance in Korine’s feature.

What the point then? Rather than finding your inner self Korine and Carax find it beneficial to see your self in a relationship with other forces at work; interiority is reduced (existing no doubt), but what interiority is composed of depends upon outer forces. Coming to grips with those forces, how they have influenced you, shaped you, and how you can engage with them while maintaining individual expression and creativity (where does that come from if not something inner, you want to ask!) is the answer. Korine and Carax affirm what is at work in the creation of a/the self, not just giving us a pessimistic account of our utter hopelessness. We may be a pale comparison of Michael Jackson, but to see admirable things in him and become that, this is optimistic.

Now, its critique of hipster films…. Isn’t the unchanging self that is trying to find its place in a confusing and stifling world the very essence of this kind of picture? These films are often about the unannounced or impossible revelation of an inner self. And so often the characters, like in Korine’s picture, fail at their revealing (unlike Kumaré apparently). Why do they fail? There is nothing there to reveal that is independent of the exterior forces at work. It would be more fruitful to see the bond, the relationship, or the relation mind and body have to the flux of the world. Korine and Carax do not give us a concrete answer on how to accomplish this, but nevertheless point out the failure of any attempt to visibly and audibly manifest a so-called inner self. Showing our outer self might be the more productive experiment.

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2 thoughts on “Finding your outer self: Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely

  1. Pingback: Holy Motors and Leos Carax Q&A at TIFF, August 10th, 2013 | PHOTOGÉNIE

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