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.


Unknown said...

I like your interpretation and basically buy it. But I'm curious how you would respond to this claim: There are still the actors, Diego Luna, Smantha Morton, who are (re)presenting the character of these impersonators? Doesn't the logic of representation slip back in at the level of film production? Wouldn't the argument be more true of actual impersonators who live their lives always in character, as it were. Or are these questions somehow beside the point?

That said, did you ever see "The House of Yes"? That's the film that most made me feel the way you do about "Mister Lonely." That is it literally a melodrama by and of images, with nothing but filmic surface at play.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Well, that places the question outside the screen and relies on our knowledge of the "real" world. How do I know Diego Luna is not a "real" impersonator (which is a hilarious phrase)?

I did see House of Yes years and years ago—I'll take another peak. What I liked about Mister Lonely is that it is ripe with images that are exquisite and insane. The film feels like it's being lead by images, not by character motivations or narrative concerns. The characters and the film actually follow the will of these images, these images that are at once so many disparate things, these impossible but actual amalgamations of affect and shape.

ayşegül said...

I loved this film and I never asked myself, not for a moment, if these are "real" impersonators. They are there, on the screen and it's real as it can be. The only scene where they seemed unreal or impersonating was the one of the so called "greatest show of all times" I believe. They were impersonating themselves as impersonators, that was a parody of show business I guess, saying that the "real" actors, actrisses or famous people of any kind actually impersonate themselves at the stage and that is what gives us while watching, the feeling that they are fake. But these people were not fake, they were as real as their "real" inspirations, may be much more. On the stage though they were obviously acting. Film could have been better without "the greatest show of all times"... There is a sense of representation there and "real world" enters to the world of this film.

Daniel Coffeen said...

But another way to see it is that the show they put on only complicates things further: impersonators doing a performance. This doesn't seem to reify representation at all. It seems to take its tropes but play it differently, jam it from within. After all, this representation -- like the film itself -- will never give way to a real. So then what is it? What is it?

And that is what I love about the film: questions, questions and no answers other than the film.

ayşegül said...

I still think that there is something wrong there, something wrong when we set the film's own world, not the "real world", as right. That's nothing to do with outside of the film. In itself it betrays itself, its very own world. They already live in an environment which seems to be quite isolated from the show business. Why they even bother to take people in from the "real world" and again why they do it in the most common way? This is a question. This question makes film itself much less than it could be. Why? Maybe because people are watching it. Considering the audience, this kind of questions makes its argument weak. Yes, film is all about questions, that's what makes it great but not this kind I believe.

Or maybe there is something much more beautiful that I can't see, I don't know that. I've read a lot of Adorno in my youth, he shows himself sometimes with very good arguments and I can't help myself.

At least I know now that it makes me think about it more, maybe that was the reason there was such a show in this beautiful film.

ayşegül said...

I mean if it's all about what it does, it does not good to itself with that scene, it's being understandable there and that's not the film wants to do. It's about searching.

The Posture of Things

You're shopping for a chair. As you browse the aisles, you note the variety — from backless computer chairs to high bar stools to plush ...