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.

Lessons from Kumaré and the Chair (Couch)

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Kumaré (2011) is a document of Vikram Gandhi’s quick turn into a yogi/guru. After studying religion and other gurus, Vikram believed it all to be false, a facade. To prove this he becomes a guru himself, donning the appropriate attire, growing his beard, and adopting an East Indian accent (and even a big walking stick). He hires a yoga teacher, learns yoga, then heads to Phoenix, Arizona to start his own following. Individuals in Arizona are deeply impressed by Kumaré, Vikram’s fake name, and after some weeks of teaching gets a core group of 10-12. Initially his facade was to expose the falsity of belief, etc., but Vikram receives the call from the other and turns instead to using his new master-status to convince his followers they don’t need a master at all – the power is, and always has been, inside you (the most cliché of New Age proclamations). What is of value in Vikram’s facade is his first hypothesis: pure exteriority.

Vikram wants to expose pure exteriority, the truth that there is nothing interior (i.e., psychological) that can be ‘truly’ discovered. Our clothes, our voice, our movements, are produced by… well, input whatever you like (society, culture, politics, history…). There is no authentic voice or behaviour, this is what Vikram shows us. What is (the) truth (of an individual) is what is exactly presented. When Kumaré reveals himself to be Vikram at the conclusion of the documentary, we could easily see him, several months following, revealing himself to be another (an other).

Thoroughly performative. Today I am a student, tomorrow a yogi, the next married, also a business person, a man/woman (yes, a controversial statement). And so on. What you are will always need the verification of an other and if that other doubts that facade the consequences are perhaps twofold: identity crisis and/or anti-social behaviour in that individual who is presenting himself to an other, and in the other to whom the individual reveals himself, if he should doubt the visible and audible exteriority, that individual will likewise recede into himself, become antisocial, and as is the fundamental human condition, become a neurotic who is, in this situation, in constant denial of the ‘truth’ of social relations, identity, or the cause and effect pattern that governs everyday life. (All this is phenomenological; thinking of Hume here.)

The end of Kumaré exposes the necessity to believe in the truth of exteriority. Vikram unveils his true self to his followers, a young man born in New Jersey, etc., and a young woman (perhaps who would also have liked to be physically and emotionally attached to Kumaré – a guess) rushes to Vikram and embraces him. Some of his followers were disgusted, in themselves or with Vikram is never quite clear. This woman however leaps back into the truth of social relations, i.e., its performativity, its facade, and the necessity to never doubt that there is nothing deeper than what is presented.

The lesson from Kumaré put into practice:

On the couch your analyst sits silently behind you. On a long bus ride the unknown passenger sits silently beside you, but nevertheless looking ahead, so in some sense quite behind you.

I am on a bus and waiting for it to depart. A car pulls up, a young woman gets out from the back. A man exits the passenger door. The man and young woman hug, she places her hands on the sides of his face, they share looks of admiration, care, and love. He lifts her off the ground, they hold each other for many seconds. A young woman emerges from the driver’s seat. The first young woman rushes over to embrace her. They hold each other, share the same looks of caring. The first woman rests her hands on the other’s face, then rubs her large, pregnant belly. This caress is the caress of love, an acknowledgment of the life that will soon begin and the pleasures of having a child, raising a child, loving a child. The embrace concludes, the young woman hugs the man once more. I felt warm, I smiled, I would have told her what an experience this was for me.

The young woman ascends the bus, floats down the aisle, and sits across from me. Next to her a young man, 18-years-old I eventually hear. They both stare straight ahead; almost immediately she begins to speak. Small talk at first: school, work, life. I overhear everything. She unveils herself, he does too, to a lesser degree. She is from very far away, visiting her pregnant sister (I think – could have been friend, missed this part), and her sister’s husband (who is also this woman’s ex-husband – perhaps the sister is a friend). She describes her days visiting sister and further, tells the young man (and me) all the complaints about both sister and brother-in-law. The truth of social relations revealed: she seems to genuinely dislike the sister and given the ex-husband status, has a number of issues with him as well. Her time with them was a slight nuisance, cause for annoyance rather than the warmth of the goodbyes I witnessed moments earlier.

But each of the three players involved must perform; if the performance was anything but amicable, anti-social behaviour and neuroses would inevitably result. The truth between these three is nothing short of the warm goodbye, a dramatization of everyday life, otherwise boring and of little meaning without caring and love for the other. The exeriority of relations and not the internal confusion (dislike, ex-husband issues, etc.) is the phenomenal experience. Everything is played out on the social field, i.e., its physical setting. Back on the bus, if the young woman did not have the analyst chair, her description of interiority, of her time spent visiting, would have greatly differed. The supposed truth of interiority is relative to the actual and physical exteriority,  i.e., those warm moments with family and friends and the conditions under which we can re-purpose those events for an exchange between patient (woman) and analyst (young man). Both are exterior relationships, not psychological processes, or the ‘real’ truth of that exteriority.  Two truths simultaneously: The young woman loves her family, performs as such and the family accepts it as authentic; she also despises them, will tell her interlocutor so.

(NB.: interiority discussed here as psychologists, pop-psychologists, and spiritualists perhaps might define; the unconscious, etc., is a different issue which I do not approach in the above.)