I couldn’t even think about making movies anymore,” says Harmony Korine, on the phone from Nashville. “Growing up, all I ever wanted to do was make movies and to be a director, but once I started making movies, all I wanted to do was quit.”
And so he did.
Audiences will have a chance to rediscover the artist starting May 2, when his Mister Lonely is released here. But Korine has been missing from the film scene for so long that some have no doubt forgotten his tale.
Thirteen years ago, as an eager 22-year-old, he exploded onto the scene with the screenplay for Larry Clark’s Kids, then followed that up with two directorial efforts which have both since become cult classics: 1997’s Gummo and 1999’s Julien Donkey-Boy, the former a scattered story about two disaffected teenagers living in rural town ravaged by a tornado, and the latter about a very strange family as seen through the skewed eyes of schizophrenic son.
From the outset, Korine was a lightning rod. The New York Times dubbed Gummo the worst movie of the year, while Roger Ebert’s jaw dropped at the sight of Julien Donkey-Boy: “Korine, who at 25 is one of the most untamed new directors, belongs on the list with Godard, Cassavetes, Herzog, Warhol, Tarkovsky, Brakhage and others who smash conventional movies and reassemble the pieces.”
It would be eight years until anyone saw a film from Korine again.
“Yeah, I went and lived in Europe for a while, hanging out with a friend of mine who’s a pimp, and then I couldn’t remember anyone’s phone number,” the director, now 35, recalls. “I started writing people’s phone numbers on the wall, and they were all six or seven times longer than they actually were — I’d have someone’s number on my wall, but then it would go 212, and then there would be 40 or 50 digits. And I thought: ‘Man, something’s going on, I need to get healthy.’”
His circuitous eight-year journey to health saw Korine working as a lifeguard at a Jewish community center, mowing lawns to raise cash, working as an intern for a Russian cobbler and abandoning the United States altogether to visit Panama, where he wound up living with what he calls a “cult of fisherman.”
At one point, he says, he wrote a script about a guy who rides about on his “humongous giant pet pig.” But two separate house fires destroyed the script. “Eventually, I just said, ‘Ok, something’s going on here, and someone doesn’t want to me to write this movie.’”
In truth, the central conceit of Mister Lonely is every bit as a bizarre as a humongous pig. The film concerns a Michael Jackson impersonator who meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator in Paris; “Marilyn” convinces “Michael” to come away with her to the remote commune where she lives with a veritable army of celebrity impersonators — from Charlie Chaplin and Abraham Lincoln to Sammy Davis Jr. and Buckwheat.
Opening to a full frame of pastel blue, Mister Lonely is softer in spirit, and often lighter in tone, than either Gummo or Julien Donkey-Boy. “I see it as a movie about faith, and hope, and wanting to be someone other than who you are,” he says. “It’s about the potential of magic in the world.”
Korine says everything changed for him when he finally left Panama to return to America, and was handed a leash by the wife of one of the fisherman, a leash supposedly attached to an invisible dog. “And then I returned to Nashville, and put this leash up by a desk where I used to sleep, and after a few weeks late at night I woke up because of a dog barking, and the sound was coming from the leash, and it sort of cleared my mind,” Korine says, matter-of-factly. “I started to think again in terms of images and stories, and I started to dream of nuns jumping out of airplanes, and then had this idea of a commune full of impersonators.”