Nearly 40 years ago, as the invigorating '60s prepared to collapse into the Nixonian '70s and beyond, the middle-aged British director John Schlesinger created one of the great Hollywood movies about loneliness.
Midnight Cowboy is indelible even today, from Harry Nilsson's mournful opening song to the denizens of the fringe of an indifferent society. Back then, you went to the city to get lost and to be alone with a community, and you died in the arms of a new-found friend on the bus ride to salvation.
Mister Lonely, by the very-indie writer/director Harmony Korine, explores a more modern way of getting away from it all (i.e., yourself): His characters gather at a commune in the Welsh highlands, where they live as celebrity impersonators. Abe Lincoln, James Dean, Sammy Davis Jr., Buckwheat, Little Red Riding Hood, Madonna, The Three Stooges, the Pope and his lover the Queen: They all live together at a sylvan Shangri La owned by Charlie Chaplin, his wife Marilyn Monroe, and their daughter, whom they raise as Shirley Temple.
The central figure of Korine's story is Michael Jackson (portrayed by Diego Luna), who's living in Paris and trying to make a living, in character, as a street performer. He looks enough like Jackson -- straight black hair, pasty pallor -- that kids ask for his autograph. From childhood, he tells us, he felt he had a "special vision" and could see the world in ways that no one else could. This is a touchstone of loneliness, and also of an artist, so naturally, one senses autobiography at play in Korine's story.
One day, during his show at an old-age home, Michael bumps into Marilyn (Samantha Morton), who persuades him to live at her commune, which she and Chaplin are developing into an entertainment venue for the impersonators. "It's a place where everyone is famous and no one ages," she tells him, breathily. "And there's going to be nowhere like it on earth."
Needless to say. Where Midnight Cowboy was a vivid drama about loneliness, Mister Lonely is a solipsistic one, with virtually no way into its rarified world. You want to feel sad for these sad people -- they revel in their isolation and their manufactured lives -- but you need to believe they're more than just an artist's fabrications. You can only assume that they're deeply delusional -- which Korine, a serious artist, clearly is not. (Mister Lonely is beautifully photographed, a rarity in low-budget indie films.)
Of course, trouble develops in paradise, with Chaplin the jealous agitator, so you might say it's historically accurate. "Sometimes when I look at you," Marilyn tells him, after he accuses her of desiring Michael, "you seem more like Adolph Hitler than Charlie Chaplin." I think that's supposed to be ironic. When the sheep they tend become ill and must be killed, Marilyn tells Michael: "It's easy to get sick these days." Q.E.D.
Marilyn became Marilyn, she tells us in flashback, after she fell from an airplane while dropping bags of rice over an impoverished Latin American countryside. She was a nun -- Werner Herzog plays her priest! -- and she survived the fall without a scratch. That, of course, explains why she became Marilyn Monroe. The ethereal image of her falling, falling, falling is perhaps the strongest moment in the film, reminiscent of Herzog's own best work.
When Michael Jackson performs his moonwalks, Korine puts titles on the screen to tell us what song he's dancing to. No surprise he couldn't get the rights to the music. Art often has to compromise to necessity, but it just seems ridiculous to make a movie when you literally can't get the tools that you need to do it. Our dreams, Michael tells us, make us unique. But if we don't try to understand why we dream what we dream, they don't rise to the level of art.
Korine's movie opens with the full rendition of Bobby Vinton's "Mister Lonely" as Michael approaches the camera, in slow motion, on a mo-ped, a stuffed monkey drifting behind him on a stick he's holding. As much as Korine loves these characters, and as tenderly as he treats them, he could have stopped there and said all he seems to want to say. His climax is cruel and arbitrary, but it's also the only thing in the movie that makes sense. And then the story ends, more or less, where Midnight Cowboy begins. How's that for irony?
Starts Fri., June 27. Harris