Michelle Heighway’s five-year journey with West Yorkshire “eccentric” Jake Mangel-Wurzel culminates in her debut feature documentary which paints a melancholic picture of a larger-than-life man’s fading limelight…
Mr. Somebody director Michelle Heighway’s camera lingers on her subject’s past: the trinkets, souvenirs and keepsakes that maintain his fading grip on his own history. Sleeping on a bed of old newspapers and a pillow of dictionaries, Jake Mangel-Wurzel, the self-styled “king of the eccentrics”, finds his trash-filled home propped up on a foundation of cigarette butts glued together by his own phlegm. It is little wonder that he lives an isolated existence on the edge of the Pennines in a small West Yorkshire town. Indeed, hoarding his own urine in plastic containers and freely admitting to both eating out of, and defecating into, his cooking pans, Mangel-Wurzel paints his own unique picture of human depreciation.
What makes Heighway’s film so fascinating is how this man’s relationship isolation shirks loneliness to the point where the King of the Eccentrics has found happiness in life by wilfully stripping his existence of the conventions that traditionally govern us. While it is difficult to understand his motivation, aside from the hints of manic depression and obsessive compulsive behaviours leading us to an unfair medical diagnosis, it is clear he has found a niche that helps him deal with, and overcome, life’s traumas.
Equally interesting in Mr. Somebody is how our sympathy is not targeted towards Mangel-Wurzel’s squalid living conditions (because ultimately he seems quite at home sharing decrepit makeshift accommodation with decades old piss) but towards how this larger-than-life character’s light appears to be fading. Through archive footage we see the red-haired, red-bearded Huddersfield native acting the fool for journalists and news crews, taking to the stage to exert his liberal life view, and basically courting attention. This “celebrity”, at its height in the 1980s and 1990s, is exhibited in grainy old footage and photographs as well as soggy, moulding newspapers strewn about his home with headlines detailing his previous misdemeanours.
The sight of him riding his old motorbike in archive video, the sun kissing his back, is starkly contrasted with the gunmetal grey skies of an English winter shedding its diminishing returns onto the very same motorbike 20 or 30 years later. Now it is rusted and left to rot. We see it eventually discarded as part of a commitment to the local council to tidy his garden. Like the bike, this curiously bizarre, altogether nutty individual has also started to rust and waste away, ready to be junked like everything else. That’s the sobering melancholy of Mr. Somebody; the de-saturation of this once so colourful individual.
Heighway’s documentary is an intimate portrayal of Jake Mangel-Wurzel. Indeed, the prying eye of her camera as it is invited into his home is perhaps the closest any film crew has got to discovering the inner workings of this peculiar fellow. As he says himself, the stranger his antics, the more the media wanted to document them. That led to him courting attention through increasingly outlandish activities, which played a key part in the film being conceived in the first place. One day, while driving home, the director noticed a car with a toilet attached to its roof. Intrigued, she followed Jake home and their five-year friendship began.
Mr. Somebody is a collection of interviews recorded at Mangel-Wurzel’s home over that period, featuring amongst other things his council-ordered clearout, the “funeral” of his beloved dog, a heated moment when the realisation sets in that his estranged daughter isn’t turning up for an pre-arranged reunion, and the day tragedy sees his house burn to the ground. Her subject is candid about a lot of things, to the point of allowing the camera to record him aiming his catheter into a pan used as both a cooking receptacle and a toilet.
Conversely, he remains guarded about other elements of his life, briefly detailing the breakdown of his marriage and the emergence of the King of the Eccentrics but specifically stopping short of revealing his birth name. Meanwhile, he recalls moments with his father, who he claims was an abusive drunk, gambler and lone shark, and his daughter, who he’s fallen out with over her alleged use of recreational drugs.
What is perhaps most compelling is how a largely “conventional” life transformed into the kooky screwball we see today. The catalyst, it appears, seems to be a messy divorce bookended by the moment his six-year-old daughter told her father she no longer wanted anything to do with him. It was the moment he cut himself off from others. His reclusive nature is portrayed as a defence mechanism, a shield against relationship disintegration by removing social interaction altogether. Acting the goat, as he puts it, is the anaesthesia that numbs the pain.
At times quite funny – Jake recalling the day Spike Milligan stopped by to sample week-old Mulligatawny soup particularly stands out, as does his flirtatious asides to filmmaker Heighway, while his introduction to the fire fighters attending his house blaze is typically memorable. At other times it’s rather melancholic – his memories of his father who at one point threatens to shoot him as a child is notably shocking, while other reminiscences of adolescent bullying, and the prolonged nature, and adverse impact, of a loveless marriage, offer further evidence why such an unconventional character – a sort of alter ego – had to be birthed. At one point, Mangel-Wurzel laments: “I was the one who wilted under the onslaught of the whole world.”
Mr. Somebody has an inherent human truth about it that emerges from within its subject’s odd extravagance. From trauma and loss emerged an almost caricatured existence but one that was, in its own way, a happy one. That the sombre reality of his fading star hints at the finality of life itself, further suggests just how important it is to embrace life while we’re here.
Written by Daniel Stephens
Directed by: Michelle Heighway
Written by: n/a
Starring: Jake Mangel-Wurzel
Released: 2014 / Genre: Documentary
Country: UK / IMDB
Mr. Somebody is now available in a limited edition DVD – for more information head over to mrsomebody.co.uk