No one likes to be defeated

› cheryl@sfbg.com

Most folks who settle down to watch a Harmony Korine film know not to expect the familiar. Korine is, after all, the guy who wrote Larry Clark’s hot-button Kids (1995), and the writer-director of 1997’s Gummo, one of the head-scratchingest flicks ever to attain cult status. His latest — his first feature since the 1999 Dogme entry Julien Donkey-Boy — is perhaps his most unusual effort to date, but not for the reasons seasoned Korine watchers might expect.

Yeah, Mister Lonely is about a Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) who falls for a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton) while performing in Paris. Though she’s married (to a faux-Charlie Chaplin), he agrees when she asks him to come live with her in the Scottish highlands — on a commune populated by even more impersonators, including a Madonna wannabe and a pseudo-Pope. That said, the film is conventionally structured, with three acts shot in a straightforward manner. (Of course, there’s also a parallel tale involving flying nuns — but more on that later.)

"[Mister Lonely] is probably my most traditional story," agreed the 35-year-old Korine, speaking from his home in Nashville. "[My] other films were about deconstructing the narrative or breaking down the story and images — kind of an assault, or a collage, with images and sound coming from all directions. With this, I felt a little bit more peace about the story and these characters. So I decided early on that I should just go with the image itself."

Korine, who coscripted Mister Lonely with his younger brother, Avi, kept his own particular fascinations in mind while writing. "I’ve always been interested in marginalized or obsessive people in real life," he said. "I just thought it was a strange existence — there’s something odd about living as an icon. And visually I thought it was interesting. I spent time on a hippie commune as a kid, and I always wanted to make a movie that was set somewhere slightly communal. I started toying with this idea of impersonators and icons all being together — what it would be like to see Sammy Davis Jr. cleaning his socks, or Abe Lincoln riding a lawnmower. It just felt right."

The commune dwellers, whose farm-bound activities are indeed surreal, though not always played for comedic effect, were carefully cast. Some, like the Sammy Davis Jr. character, were impersonators by trade in real life; others, like French actor Denis Lavant, who plays Chaplin, were not.

"What was most important was that [the celebrities being impersonated] needed to have a certain kind of mythology about them, where the myth could actually bleed into the narrative of the story," Korine explained. "Plus, they were also just people that I liked — I loved all of those characters. And I knew I would never be able to work with the Three Stooges, or Buckwheat, so it was like my attempt at going back."

When it came to plotting out his Michael Jackson, Korine — who didn’t write with Luna in mind but did offer him the role first — had some specific ideas about how the character-within-a-character should look. He’s patterned after Jackson’s Dangerous era — face masks, military armbands, fedoras, and shoulder-grazing straight hair.

"I just thought he looked the best during that period," Korine noted. Earlier, he’d mentioned that while he finds Jackson interesting, he’s not a fan on the level of, say, buying his new albums. "He’s like the world’s greatest eccentric, and that was when he was on his way to becoming this incredible abstraction."

Interspersed between poignant sequences depicting Michael struggling to fit in, even among others of his kind, are a series of increasingly odd occurrences in the Panamanian jungle. A group of nuns — overseen by a bossy priest (Werner Herzog, who also starred in Julien Donkey-Boy) — are shocked to discover they can skydive without parachutes. It’s a bizarre conceit that allows Mister Lonely its most glorious images: nuns joyfully clasping hands in the air while plummeting safely to the ground. Yo, Harmony, what’s that got to do with Jacko?

"I always want to write a novel with pages missing in the right places," Korine said. "I think it’s best to leave some things undefined, to not complete the circle. To me, it was the same movie. They are the same story. The narratives were parallel to each other. They spoke to each other. They both had this idea of faith of and transcendence, wanting to be other than who you are, being outside the system and creating your own language. I knew there would be a certain kind of person who doesn’t want to try to make that connection, and that’s fine — but there are so many movies being made where you’re told what to think every step of the way. It’s not that important for me."

What is important to Korine is something that goes beyond the usual filmmaking process. Don’t look for him to pull a David Gordon Green, for example, and direct a mainstream stoner comedy.

"What I like is making things. I like to film things and put them together, whether they’re like movies or features or essays or clips. Movies are what I love, but in some ways there’s too much focus on everything being features. Sometimes it’s nice to see things that are just moments. Sometimes, in 30 seconds, I can feel more than I do in 30 hours," he explained. "I always felt like, in movies, they waste so much time getting to the good part, and resolving after the good part. I was just like, why can’t you make movies that consist only of good parts?" *

MISTER LONELY opens Fri/23 in Bay Area theaters.