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.