Wings of Fame (1990), Harmony Korine, and the Virtue of Restraint

One of the more fascinating aspects of December’s Movie of the Month, 1990’s Wings of Fame, is how delicately surreal the picture can be despite the heightened absurdity of its premise. You’d think that a movie about a fame-economy afterlife where celebrity & cultural longevity determine your post-mortem soul’s access to eternal existence would be an aggressively bizarre work, but Wings of Fame is exceedingly gentle with its own surrealist fantasy. The movie is patient with the potential absurdity of its juxtapositions of dead famous people converging in a shared afterlife, finding much more interest in poking at the existential & philosophical implications of how that fantasy realm would work. To contrast that restraint with a more aggressively bizarre version of a similar work, you’d have to look to one of the most unrestrained button-pushers working in modern cinema: habitual provocateur Harmony Korine. As a filmmaker, Korine’s grimy, crassly misshapen aesthetic is downright antithetical to the refined elegance of Wings of Fame, which calls on respectably mannered performances from actors Peter O’Toole & Colin Firth to establish its tone. That’s what makes him such an excellent point of comparison, even if an unlikely one.

Sandwiched between the unrelenting oddities Julien Donkey-Boy & Trash Humpers, it should be no surprise that Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely is an uncompromising, aggressively surreal work. Considered in the larger context of the director’s career, however, it’s much more akin to his more strictly narrative works Gummo & Spring Breakers than those looser, less accommodating titles. Diego Luna stars in Mister Lonely as a Michael Jackson impersonator struggling to make a living as a street performer in Paris. His life changes dramatically when he’s recruited by a Marilyn Monroe lookalike (Samantha Morton) to live in a Scottish commune with other celebrity impersonators. Michael Jackson did not die until a year after Mister Lonely went into wide distribution in 2008. The film also features impersonators of the still-alive Madonna and the deceased-since-2014 Shirley Temple. Still, it explores similar themes to the fame economy afterlife in Wings of Fame. In an early scene before he’s recruited for the commune, “Michael Jackson” shouts to patients he’s entertaining at an old folks home, “We can all live forever! We can all be children forever! Don’t die! Live forever!” between his iconic dance moves. The immortality he’s promoting in that speech is something he achieves in his own life through adopting Michael Jackson’s celebrity, just like the fame-envious consumers in The Congress. When Jackson boats to the Scottish castle commune with Monroe, it’s like he’s crossing over into a surrealist afterlife (much like the foggy rivers Styx access to the afterlife in Wings of Fame) where famous people like Charlie Chaplin, James Dean, Abraham Lincoln, Sammie Davis Jr., Buckwheat, and Little Red Riding Hood can cohabitate, seemingly removed from the reality of space, Death, and time.

An odd commonality shared between Wings of Fame & Mister Lonely is that they both structure their famous fantasy realms with a remove that restrains the full potential of their absurdist premises. Besides a few recognizable names line Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and Lassie, Wings of Fame mostly fills its celebrity ranks with non-existent historical figures. Instead of a specific Russian political poet or psychedelic rocker, the movie substitutes an archetype placeholder. This may limit the potential absurdity of seeing famous dead people from across time share a single space, but it does leave more room for philosophical discussion of their fantastic plight instead of dwelling in the details of their individual personalities. Similarly, Mister Lonely uses the remove of gathering celebrity lookalikes instead of actual celebrities in its own fantasy realm. The image of Michael Jackson & Charlie Chaplin playing ping-pong together is absurd, but not nearly as absurd as it could be if those players were the real deal, not lookalikes. Korine’s remove through impersonators might be the one area where his film displays restraint exercised in the much more delicate Wings of Fame. It’s a choice that opens the film to the same fame-as-immortality themes as its counterpoint, although their approaches to the subject are drastically different.

It’s strange to cite any given element in a Harmony Korine film as an example of artistic restraint, since so much of his work is associated with aggressive looseness & crass self-indulgence. Indeed, the only limiting choice made in Mister Lonely is in structuring the film around dead celebrity impersonators instead of actual dead celebrities. Everything else is a free-for-all, completely detached from the subtle tone of Wings of Fame. “Abraham Lincoln” spins a basketball under a strobe light while cursing like a sailor. “Michael Jackson” tenderly says goodbye to individual pieces of his furniture in his rented room with deep sincerity before departing to his new communal home. Celebrity faces appear in clouds & painted eggs to sing to Michael and address his internal conflicts. An entire subplot unfolds, separate from the concerns of celebrity lookalikes, where Werner Herzog plays a priest who wrangles a mission of nuns who resemble The Virgin Mary; together they develop a skydiving cult that requires them to regularly leap from airplanes without parachutes. In typical Harmony Korine fashion, this all sounds very chaotic, but somehow amounts to a slow-moving, unrushed feature that’s just as willing to abandon its audience in its pacing as it is playful with its subject. It’s a challenging watch, but one that rewards in individual, absurdist moments.

The difference in the relative restraint exercised in Wings of Fame & Mister Lonely, respectively, could not be clearer. At the conclusion of the much less bombastic Wings of Fame, the audience is left with so much to ponder about what the film is trying to say about the real life implications of its fame-as-immortality premise. Mister Lonely, by contrast, exhausts its audience with an overload of frivolous (though often fascinating) indulgences, leaving very little room for spiritual or philosophical thought to linger among the flashier details. Wings of Fame can feel frustratingly incomplete & reluctant to fully push the absurdity of its fame-economy afterlife premise, but Korine’s counterpoint suggests that’s not entirely a bad thing. Its quiet, restrained surrealism leaves room for a much more extensive philosophical provocation & thought exercise. Korine’s aggressive exhaustion of his own subject leaves so much less ground to be explored in his viewer’s minds after the credits rolled, having laid all of his cards out on the table. Both films are entertainingly absurd in their own surprising ways, but patience & restraint affords one of them cinematic immortality their characters could only achieve through celebrity.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the delicately surreal afterlife puzzler Wings of Fame, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

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When I found out last year that there were going to be 6 new Star Wars films — not just the new trilogy, but three stand-alone films as well — I was skeptical. As excited as I was about the final trilogy, the in-between films sounded like nothing more than a money grab. But after seeing Rogue One, the second entry in the reboot, I’m pretty sold.

Before watching The Force Awakens last year, I kind of lost myself in fan theories and had fun with the idea of Jar Jar Binks coming back as the ultimate big baddy, but for Rogue One I went in blind. After all, chronologically it happens in between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. People who are even slightly familiar with Star Wars know how this plays out, but it turns out there were a few twists and turns I didn’t expect. Rogue One frames the rest of the series in a much darker light. It brings a revived urgency and anxiety to the franchise, which I hope was probably there when Star Wars was first released in 1977. It manages to make the Death Star not just an impractical super weapon and the Empire a floundering bureaucracy that can’t teach its Stormtroopers how to aim. No, the Empire is a real frightening threat. Despite Disney’s CEO insisting that this is not a political movie, there’s quite a bit of war imagery and themes that are being presented in a time when the threat of fascism seems to loom. I mean, the movie itself is about a rebellion. The notion that it’s not political is naive and out of touch. But I guess you should never count on a multimillion dollar mega corporation to stand by the radical media that they inadvertently release

Rogue One follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) of the Rebel Alliance. They form a group of misfit rebels with Andor’s brutally honest droid sidekick K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a blind force warrior Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), his big gun toting conterpart Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), and a defecting Imperial shuttle pilot named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). Together they work against the Empire to smuggle the plans of the the Death Star to the Alliance. One big problem I had, though, was that the characters are not as developed as they should be. I keep hearing people say that it’s a lack of screen time, but in the case of Jyn I really think that they had ample opportunity to present her as more than just another brunette leading lady with good aim and an uncanny ability to scale vertical surfaces. I also thought that Cassian could have been a much more interesting character. As he is, I don’t really buy the vague romance that he and Jyn are supposed to have by the end of the movie. Though with Star Wars, it’s usually the minor roles that win hearts. Chirrut and Baze are a great pair, and K-2SO is a real pal. I’d like to have had more from Riz Ahmed’s character, instead of shoving him to the background and referring to him as “the shuttle pilot” half the movie, though.

What the movie gets right, it gets really right. The villains are scary. Somehow Rogue One was able to present a fresh introduction to Darth Vader, which is great because this is the first time we’re seeing Vader as Vader, really doing his thing, since Return of the Jedi thirty-three years ago. He is used sparingly and masterfully, and is truly terrifying and cruel. It’s so great to hear James Earl Jones’s voice coming out of that mask again. The gestures were spot on, right down to that iconic Vader finger wag. This is not the “NOOOOO!” moment of the prequels. This is true Vader. Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin also gets resurrected as a total computer recreation. Despite the general mixed response, I found to it be extremely impressive and convincing.

It’s also a pretty movie. It really captures the look and feel of a Star Wars movie. There’s hazy shots of star ships gliding across horizons at sunset and far off planets in the distance. One of the locations in particular really stands out. There’s a moon called Jedha, with a city and a temple that we’re to assume belonged at one point in time to the Jedi. There’s an aerial shot of the landscape featuring a giant, ancient Jedi statue on it’s side in the sand that, nerdily enough, reminded me of The Gates of Argonath, the great statues of kings on the river Anduin in Lord of the Rings. There’s some really cool costumes too: floor length bright red robes in the cities, Chirrut’s semi monk style clothing, and some retro helmets made a comeback.

In the day and age of reboots and series revivals Star Wars has taken the lead for quality. The two newest movies have proven that the old “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” attitude works out and has even redeemed a franchise so nearly killed by its own creator. Rogue One was far from being the nostalgia fueled money grab I expected, and actually left me feeling some complex things.

-Alli Hobbs