It was a rough spring at the movies for compulsive watch-checkers like us, but we took consolation in knowing that a honest-to-God hero would be arriving come early May. What? No, not that wuss Iron Man, but rather Harmony Korine, whose new Mister Lonely marks the filmmaker's first writing-directing effort in nearly 10 years. And what a decade: Adrift in Paris, anchored in Nashville, survivor of two house fires, briefly reteaming with his Kids director Larry Clark on the teenagers-fucking milestone Ken Park, and ultimately conjuring Mister Lonely from a vision of nuns plunging from airplanes and the garish subculture of celebrity impersonators.
It makes all the sense in the world. Really! Just ask him.
"It's a lingering sensation," Korine told Defamer in a recent interview. "I just started thinking of images like nuns riding bicycles out of airplanes — doing tricks in the clouds and stuff. I couldn't figure out where that was coming from. So if I was going to tell a story with nuns jumping out of airplanes, what could it mean? And I thought, 'What if they had no parachutes? What if they just believed enough that they would survive?' It's the same way the impersonators willed themselves to be those people. Maybe both stories speak to the idea of faith and a kind of strange magic in things — wanting to be something other than who you are."
Opening today in New York and May 9 in Los Angeles, Mister Lonely is in part Korine's way of both rationalizing and perpetuating that magic. More immediately, it's the meandering tale of a Michael Jackson impersonator in Paris (Diego Luna) who steals away to a colony of other impersonators sequestered in a Scottish castle. Led by Marilyn Monroe (Samantha Morton) and her misanthropic husband Charlie Chaplin, the remaining characters evoke Korine's '90s antagonisms Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy without leaning on their bleak dispossession.
"They had to be people who, in real life, I've liked and admired," he said, referring to an ensemble including Abraham Lincoln, the Three Stooges, Madonna, Queen Elizabeth II and Sammy Davis Jr. "Someone whose mythology I could bleed into the narrative of the movie. Or I could take Marilyn's depression or Sammy's sadism or Michael and his ethereal, bizarre nature and incorporate that into the storyline."
But their celebrity was essential, Korine added, hinting at a sort of accidental accessibility he hadn't achieved since scripting Kids in 1995. Most important was his conception of — or even his sympathy for — Michael Jackson himself. "Michael was symbolic of the world's greatest eccentric," he said. "Maybe somewhere in his story is the Greatest American Story Ever Told. It would take someone much smarter than me to tell that story or decipher it. But what I liked about him was what he stood for. He wasn't a man; he wasn't a boy. He wasn't black; he wasn't white. He just existed like a ghost to me. He was all of those things and none of them. I liked that idea."
Then there were the nuns, plummeting in prayer with powder-blue habits billowing behind them. Korine's friend and Julien Donkey-Boy cast alumnus Werner Herzog plays the wasted priest channeling God, urging them toward the miracle of survival. Korine hinted at the connections between narratives, but acknowledged only the sense in senselessness.
"There's not really a point to it," he said. "There hasn't really been to anything I've done. They're more just ideas. If I could express it in words, I don't think I'd film it. I'm trying to figure it out myself." Iron Man, eat your heart out.