I turned off "Gummo" after 10 minutes, and I barely made it through "Julien Donkey-Boy," so how is it possible that I absolutely loved "Mister Lonely," Harmony Korine's third film? It's a good question, and one I will probably ponder the answer to for some time.
Primarily I have to attribute my love of this film to two things: 1) My growing appreciation for Werner Herzog's body of work (Surely it is no coincidence that he is in "Mister Lonely"), and 2) An essay I read in film school about the "Cinema of Attractions."
Like Herzog's films, this one takes the long route to get from point A to point B, and when I say this I do not mean that it is slow. They just follow a certain idiosyncratic logic that one might expect to find in a Herzog film. The narratives it contains are linear, but they are filtered through a cinematic kaleidoscope of color and sound and beautifully strange sights that could easily stand alone as short-films.
And this is where the Cinema of Attractions comes in. This film really is something like going to the circus and seeing one attraction after another, and each exhibit holds the attention of the audience precisely because it is so strange. Above all, this aspect of the film recalled nothing so much as the introductory sequences of Federico Fellini's "Satyricon." While these vignettes could exist independent of one another, they work together to form two separate narratives that never really overlap. The results somehow feel right, but it's hard to say why. There is some genius in that, I think.
The main narrative focuses on a Michael Jackson impersonator and his experiences as he discovers other impersonators who channel Marilyn Monroe, Abe "F------" Lincoln, Charlie Chaplin, and James Dean, among others. This cast of characters lives together in circus of strangeness, and the results are magnetic. The other narrative focuses on a priest (Herzog) and a group of nuns who experience a miracle when one of them falls out of a plane and lands on the ground unharmed.
Overall, the film struck me much as a very abstract painting might: I didn't know what I was looking at, but I knew I liked it. Most films are not brave enough to attempt this, and most films that attempt this manage to lose cohesion along the way or never find a way to make the audience invest in what they are watching. "Mister Lonely" works where other films of its kind do not (although it is really difficult to say exactly what kind of film this is). I cannot explain how difficult it is for a film like this to hold a person's attention for an hour, let alone almost two. But "Mister Lonely" was wildly successful in this for me, and for that reason I shall have to own it.