A New Kind of Icon: Queen Mimi

Spoilers abound because this is a documentary.

What do you do when you see a homeless person? Zach Galifinakis and Renee Zelwiger befriend her, take her to swanky Hollywood events, and eventually rent and furnish a home for her. Queen Mimi tells that story, with much more focus on Mimi, the woman they helped, than Renee or Zach. Turns out she’s a lot more interesting.

Born Marie Elizabeth Haist, Mimi became homeless in her fifties following a painful divorce. Her husband hadn’t let her work, so she couldn’t land a job and soon ran out of options. She slept in a chair at the laundromat for seventeen years where she developed her neighborhood following as the “Queen of Santa Monica.” Her severe scoliosis seems to reflect this sleeping arrangement. Asked about sleeping in a laundromat chair for so long , she says, “I take a tylenol in the morning and I’m okay.” It didn’t keep her from leading 6:00 AM employee dance parties.

Before the relative security of the laundromat, Mimi knew life on the streets, punctuated occasionally by a stay with a friend. She caught hypothermia twice, wiped “the green stuff” off old deli meats for dinner, and eludes to witnessing sexual assaults among the homeless. Asked what she would do when it rains, she says, “Probably got wet.”

Just by her being friendly, Mimi “developed a clientele of her own” in the words of the laundromat’s owner. She folds clothes and does people’s laundry for them, and people pay what they want. Pay what you want. That, I have to tell you, is a very familiar phrase to a the 21st century independent musician. Mimi gets by clinging to her principles. “I never, never asked for money,” she says. Considering how significant that is to her, I find it amusing that the film was funded through Kickstarter, which many bands often turn to.

But I’m not knocking it. Documentarian, Yaniv Rokah treats his subject with sensitivity and an eye for detail, presenting a nearly 360 degree view of her life. The movie took five years of filming–that’s exhaustive. You know time’s the fourth dimension? Long-form documentaries don’t get enough credit for making films in the broad scopes of four dimensions.

The depth of the coverage allows for some extremely significant life events to be caught on tape, including a brief interview as Mimi’s as she’s taken away in a stretcher. There are shifts in Mimi’s relationship with her family too. The amount of intrigue and detail rivals the treatment of our top celebrities by the media at large and in-particular tabloids like Us Weekly, which, by the way, Mimi appears in. Mimi who doesn’t understand the internet. (She was homeless and already a senior when it popped into all our lives.)

It’s just that the camera loves her. She’s a natural, able to transmit her warmth and charm through it.

 

Mimi: I’m on the internet so I’m known around the world.
Rokah: You’re like a celebrity.
Mimi: Yes, a celebrity without pay.

Here the movie feels a bit like antidote to the celebrity culture that made Donald Trump, even while sharing much in common with its devices. But, alas, that’s a topic I’ve promised to leave behind. I’ll just say that Queen Mimi does for our modern media what “Death of a Salesman” demonstrated for theater, that a person need not have any power to be a tragic hero, to have an epic rise and fall.

download-5Part of consuming reality television and celebrity culture is about the effect of the medium on its subjects. Here the documentary process appears to have a positive effect, bearing on Mimi’s reunion with her family. Rokah asks Mimi to look at her past, her least favorite thing to do, but there does seem to be some healing in it.

Mimi is a beautiful person, but the film presents her warts and all. No matter how grim her situation, Mimi could never bring herself to go to a shelter, saying, “One time I went for help at a church. So many people were addicts… I didn’t want anything to do with them, because I didn’t want to be classified like them.” Mimi goes so far as to shoo homeless people away from the laundromat, much to the chagrin of her posh L.A. friends. But how can you judge her? It’s clear, in conjunction with her many positive qualities, that she succeeded because she managed to transfer social classes and shake off the stigma of her homelessness as she developed friendships with the all the nice people who came to her home to do their laundry.

At her best, she is a Santa Monican ascetic monk, her resilience and wisdom sinking in deeply when she says, on her becoming homeless later in life: “I made the best of it…. I find if you dwell on something you can blow it out of proportion.” The movie is a psychological portrait of resilience. It shows beautifully the merits and pitfalls of never looking back.

This documentary receives my highest rating: mind expaninding. It’s funny until it’s sad and then it’s funny again. Mimi is a born TV star who sets a remarkable example for how to carry yourself when you’re down and out.