The Melodrama of the Image in Harmony Korine's "Mister Lonely"
All of the characters in Mister Lonely—almost—are impersonators. This immediately shifts the very architecture of cinema and the dynamics of experiencing a film. Rather than actors trying to present real people, we see actors playing actors who are always acting—and yet it is not as though they go back to their real selves when off screen.
The characters in this film, then, are always playing a character. This shifts the affective distribution of the filmic experience. We are never asked to identify or understand these people. We are asked, rather, to see these people as they are always already images, always already playing life, putting on the world (I steal that from McLuhan and I just love that phrase—putting on the world). By displacing the very premise of acting, the film displaces the very possibility of identification.
And so the narrative force that would come from characters interacting with each other is suspended. There is no narrative force, not really, just a series of exquisite images.
This film is a spectacle. It privileges looking at images rather than interpreting images. Mister Lonely rigorously denies access to the real as it shifts the space of cinema from the relationship between world and image to the image itself, to the screen. The images in this film do no refer to a real. Diego Luna doesn't just play some guy playing Michael Jackson. His identity is as an impersonator of Michael Jackson. This guise will not give way to a real person (despite the ending which I will not address now).
The film is not a parable. On the contrary, it's a film.
But what makes it so great—and it is almost or perhaps great—is that it is a melodrama. The effect is supremely odd. These are not people, not really. They're impersonators but impersonators all the way down. So from whence the drama? It seems to come from the narratives of characters they play—from Michael Jackson, from Marilyn Monroe—but this is not to say that it doesn't come from the characters, as well. Only who are they?
What Korine brings to light is the melodrama of the image. It is not that the image presents melodrama, that the image is a vehicle of melodrama. There is no representation. All there are are images and these images are rich in pathos.
It's not a pathos that we experience one-to-one with the drama—we are not necessarily sad when they are sad, happy when they are happy. As I've said, there is no identification because how could you possibly identity with these characters? It's literally impossible. No, the affect of the characters are constituent and constitutive of the affect of the image.
It is the image, of which the characters are a part, that produces—no, that is—the melodrama.