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Entries in I'm Still Here [2010] (1)


I'm Still Here (2010)

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In 2008, two-time Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix quit acting to become a hip-hop artist.  Rumors gained steam for months as the typically handsome, clean-shaven star grew a gnarly, scraggly beard and equally disturbing potbelly.  At public appearances he hid behind thick sunglasses and mumbled answers to reporters’ questions like Jim Morrison after too much wine.  Phoenix’s now-famous appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman—during which he all but refused to promote his last film, Two Lovers—solidified his commitment; if not to hip-hop than to creating the most bizarre, elaborate identity hoax since Andy Kaufman’s 1980s pranks.

In I’m Still Here, Casey Affleck documents the rise and fall of his brother-in-law as he shuns the silver screen and embraces rap—under the street-cred-deficient handle “J.P.”  We get a few minutes of Phoenix’s many TV appearances in which he receives praise for his turn as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line; suddenly, we’re in someone’s back yard at night, watching this scary looking caveman in a blue hoodie talk about the nature of performance as art.  It’s a sharp cut and one wonders if this was the end of a long transition or an overnight decision to go full-on weirdo.

Before the film’s release, it was revealed that I’m Still Here is a fake documentary that Affleck and Phoenix had pulled one over on everybody.  What’s fascinating is that the fact that the movie was staged doesn’t change its effectiveness or believability.  The two co-conspirators created a film and a pop-cultural meme that makes fools of not just themselves or Hollywood, but also of the audience and people who obsess over celebrities.  This is the deliciously deviant opposite of a bad thing.

Let’s get something out of the way.  Just because the film is a hoax doesn’t mean it’s a joke; that’s to say, you can’t dismiss it as a prank or write it off as a comedy just because someone let the cat out of the bag.  While there are some great comedic moments in I’m Still Here, the movie’s message is deadly serious: How far out of the accepted mold is a celebrity allowed to break before their audience turns on them?

The answer is “not far, if at all.”  Sure, there’s a bit of leeway in the beginning, as when Phoenix visits a Miami nightclub and convinces the manager to give him stage time.  The manager is obviously star struck and overly accommodating; until a couple months later, when it’s time to actually book the show, and after “J.P.” has been made a fool of in the news.  Phoenix is relegated to a Wednesday night slot; hardly a rock star’s welcome.  Even Phoenix’s inner circle begins to fall away: One moment his assistant Anton Langdon is jumping around naked for the actor’s amusement; the next he’s possibly leaking stories to the tabloids that his employer’s antics are fraudulent.

You may wonder why I’m talking about these things as if they actually happened.  After all, if a movie is a hoax, is it reliable at all?  That’s the brilliant meta-question Affleck poses.  If the fame angle belongs to Phoenix, then the director’s beef is with the idea of reality as a media construct.  Sure, I’m Still Here is a fake.  But how fake is it?  Who all is in on the joke?  Is it just Affleck and Phoenix?  Are the sound and lighting guys part of the gag?  What about Phoenix’s publicist?  Her horrified green room reaction to the Letterman appearance sure seemed real; as did the fist fight that broke out between J.P. and a heckler at the Miami concert.  Did Affleck hire Edward James Olmos to drop by Phoenix’s kitchen to dispense the most bizarre metaphor/advice about dealing with fame, or was that a sincere moment between two people who take their own heady bullshit way too seriously?

Since we live in the Internet age, the answers to these questions are probably not far away.  Then again, who’s to say which answers can be trusted?  How far down the rabbit hole have Phoenix and Affleck taken us?  Is there a conspiracy, or is the conspiracy that there is no conspiracy?  This is all deep stuff for a movie full of coke and hookers and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs suffering through J.P.’s rap demos.  But that’s the wonderful thing about I’m Still Here; it’s a grand, golden onion that can be admired on a surface level or endlessly peeled back until the deepest layers make you want to cry.

The film is most notable, I think, for the fact that it is a wholly new kind of fake documentary.  Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap and Christopher Guest’s movies like Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show were comedies that wore the skin of the documentary.  Sacha Baron Cohen’s Da Ali G Show (and the Borat and Bruno movies it spawned) were candid camera shows anchored by outrageous performance art.  In both cases, the audience was in on the joke.  It’s fun to laugh at vapid rock stars, especially when what is presented on screen comports with our popular notions of their excesses and infantile tantrums.  The same goes for rednecks, small-town folk, powerful CEOs, and Hollywood celebrities.  Everyone who is perceived as different or powerful is fair game for mass ridicule.  Affleck, in a genius move, turned the camera on us, the general viewing public—and we still didn’t get it.

I’m Still Here owes a lot to the art of another great Andy, Andy Warhol.  In the 1960s, he challenged the popular notion of what art is.  Is it a silkscreened photograph of Marilyn Monroe that’s been painted in gaudy makeup?  Or a painting of a Campbell’s soup can?  What if there are a hundred soup can paintings in a gallery?  Is that art, or is it lent the pretense of art by sheer quantity and location?  Here, Affleck offers up the documentary to the same scrutiny.  It’s the New Millennium version of the old adage that all documentaries become illegitimate the moment the footage is edited to make a film.  Is I’m Still Here a documentary?  If so, what is it documenting, exactly—the downfall of a talented young actor, or the collapse of the American spirit via voyeuristic escapism and celebrity worship?

Early in the film, we see home video footage of a young Phoenix and his siblings singing and dancing on a local newscast.  The reporter says something to the effect of the kids being born performers with bright futures.  Phoenix is a solid actor who made quite the career for himself.  But with I’m Still Here, he may have taken his art one step too far.  As of this writing, his filmography stops at Two Lovers, with nothing listed as being in development or as just having wrapped.  Is it possible that the actor who pretended to quit acting has been shut out by the acting and filmmaking community?  Or maybe all his crazy rants from the movie about being lost creatively and hating his fickle audience came from the heart.  We may never know.  But if I’m Still Here is indeed Joaquin Phoenix’s swan song, it’s one hell of a final performance.