Casey Affleck's new documentary, I'm Still Here, purportedly documents the unraveling of actor Joaquin Phoenix—who in 2008 announced he was quitting acting to begin a rap career, and proceeded to act like a very media-starved crazy person for about a year. You probably remember it: His Letterman appearance, his various horrible rap performances, his Hassidic/mountain-man/street-person look. It was a mess. And this film provides an even messier (in every sense of the word), up-close-and-personal look inside Joaquin's world during that period.
But is any of it real? Or is the whole thing—the media shenanigans, the "rap career," the documentary by Joaquin's brother-in-law Casey—all just some elaborate performance art experiment? It's a testament to our highly skeptical, "nothing we see can be trusted," post-mockumentary culture that these questions have from the outset framed this Joaquin/documentary discussion. And indeed, these are the questions I'm Still Here wants us to be asking as we leave the theater.
After watching the film, the evidence seems to point resoundingly to the "performance art / it's-all-an-act" option, for several reasons:
- The documentary was "written and produced" by Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix. Why would a truly mess-ed up, having-a-meltdown actor be so complicit in the creation of a film documenting (in very unflattering light) his own self-destruction? And why would a brother-in-law continue to roll the camera rather than intervene and help his wife Summer's brother out?
- For the entire duration of the documentary's filming, Joaquin Phoenix was constantly in the public eye, and in very strategic ways (all of which show up in the film as very compelling plot points). In mid-2009, however, where the film's chronology ends, Phoenix disappeared from the public eye and has not been seen or heard from since. Affleck's camera seems to have been there for a very specifically segmented period in Phoenix's life, but why didn't it cover anything before the meltdown or after?
- The film ends in a very cinematic way, with an homage to Gus Van Sant (a director both Affleck and Phoenix have worked with, and a director fascinated by experimenting with the inherent real/fake blurriness of cinema). The final sequence/shot of the film seems to say, "this is just an art film, an experiment, meant to make you ponder."
- The film's production company is "They Are Going to Kill Us Productions" ... which is perhaps a prophetic statement if and when Affleck/Phoenix publicly admit that the whole thing was a ruse.
There are a myriad of other reasons to doubt the veracity of this film, though even if we agree that it is mostly a performance art experiment, there are still the questions of what motivated Phoenix to do this, what the point is, and whether or not there are some core truths guiding the mayhem.
To the last point, I recommend David Edelstein's take for New York Magazine, where he suggests that yes, the film is an act, but not entirely:
Phoenix’s metamorphosis looks less like a scam than a go-for-broke art project, an outlandish psychodrama with a nucleus of truth. A onetime alcoholic who’s known for being alternately un- and over-defended, whose beloved brother was a casualty of celebrity excess, who had fled show business before, who had lost himself in the role of Johnny Cash, country music’s quintessential self-created “outlaw” (winning acclaim but losing the ultimate prize, the Oscar), Phoenix would be a natural for one of those actorish existential breakdowns—the ones that turn on the old conundrum, “Where does my mask end and my true self begin?” To dismiss his latest role (and the film that charts its evolution) because it’s not “real” is to miss out on the charge of watching an actor play footsy with his own, barely corralled dementia.
(HT to Laurel for pointing me to this review).
Though I can't get inside Phoenix's head, I suspect that this "playing footsy with his own dementia" is a pretty apt description of what's going on here. Acting—good acting, that is—always has a little bit of this going on. Phoenix here is simply playing with identity, experimenting with being a different version of himself, because that's what his whole life has been anyway (the film takes care to remind us that Joaquin has been a performer basically since birth).
The film's title seems like a not-so-subtle nod to Todd Haynes' excellent Bob Dylan experiment, I'm Not There, a film very much about identity, masks, and the ways in which celebrity confuses or fragments notions of the self. Early in the film, Phoenix indicates that he "doesn't want to play the character of Joaquin anymore," a statement the likes of which most celebrities probably express, or feel, at one point or another.
It's doubtless a strange thing to routinely bear witness to an external version of yourself in the media—watching yourself on YouTube, seeing yourself on Access Hollywood or in tabloids. Throughout I'm Still Here we see Phoenix watching himself on his laptop—glued to the screen like Narcissus looking into the pond. But is what he sees a familiar self? Or is it something as foreign as Commodus or Johnny Cash? Or is it ultimately all the same?
If the film is ultimately a treatise on the complexity of celebrity and the identity confusion of our postmodern world (where Googling oneself is common practice and the "self" seems ever more externalized and mediated), that's fine. It's interesting to think about such things. But I couldn't help but wonder about the insensitivity of a "joke" like this, given that so many celebrities really are having public meltdowns and truly suffering from the confusions of public identity/performance/notoriety. Are the real-life troubles of the Britneys and Lindsays mere fodder for some high-minded meta critique of celebrity culture? Is there anything we as a culture, as consumers, can do to actually help heal these wounds?
Real or not, I'm Still Here is a rather somber film, full of depraved, reckless behavior on full, gratuitous display. The film is meant to make us laugh, and cringe, and maybe cry—because if it isn't real for Phoenix it is certainly real for some people, and the experience of watching it all unfold is certainly a real one for us—the consumers. But then maybe that's what it's all about anyway. Maybe the joke is on us—the people ever less certain about the truth of that which we are fed, or rather that which we willingly consume.