Joaquin Phoenix Goes a Very Long Way to Prove a Very Minor Point in I'm Still Here
Im Still Herethat Joaquin Phoenix moviecapitalizes on an anxiety thats very of-the-moment, uniting pop cultural phenomena as seemingly disparate as the too-stupid/good-to-be-true Jersey Shore characters, James Francos baffling side careers as a professional student and soap opera stud, and pretty much every thing having to do with Vincent Gallo. Basically, anything that forces us to ask: Are they fucking with me?
Directed by Phoenixs brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, the film purports to document Phoenixs high-profile retirement from acting, his alleged attempt to transition into a hip-hop career, and his subsequent, much-publicized meltdown. This period coincided with the promotion and release of Phoenixs last film, Two Lovers, which, like Here, was released by Magnolia Pictures. Whether or not the retirement was contrived or permanent, Phoenix has not appeared in or publicly acknowledged shooting another film since. He has also not released any musical recordingsin fact, hes been all but absent from the public eye since spring of last yearwhich is coincidentally the same time that Heres portrait of his life ends.
At the outset of the film, Phoenix describes his acting career as a self-imposed prison, claiming frustration with his lack of creative control as a performer ([Im] just a fucking puppet) and resentment over his obligation to maintain his celebrity persona (I dont want to be the Joaquin character anymore). And so, after participating in a charity theater event with a dream team including Affleck, Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, and fucking Danny DeVito, Phoenix gives a red-carpet reporter the exclusive news that this will be his last night as an actor.
Its such an exclusive that it comes as a surprise to Phoenixs publicist, who is helpless to intervene as her twice-Oscar-nominated client proceeds to obliterate any industry goodwill he might have had in a six-month flurry of drugs, shitty rapping, P. Diddy stalking (the hip-hop producer provides much-needed comic relief by riffing on his own persona, as he did earlier this year in Get Him to the Greek), and bizarre public appearances, peaking with Phoenixs now-legendary February 2009 beyond-awkward non-interview with David Letterman. Throughout, Affleck tails Phoenix (without much explanation as to why) but largely refrains from intervening in the action, which is enabled by Phoenixs entourage of two: a general assistant named Antony, and Larry, billed as Phoenixs caretaker.
Its hard to doubt the veracity of whats onscreen: Much of what Here depicts happened in real life and in plain sight, and all throughout this period, the gossip media breathlessly reported on Phoenixs every increasingly curious move. But just after Phoenix announced his retirement, Entertainment Weekly quoted an unnamed source who claimed that Phoenix and Affleck were perpetrating a hoax for the purpose of a faux-documentary. Im Still Here was thus the target of skeptical speculation from shot one, a potential liability that Affleck and Phoenix drag into the frame, with Affleck angrily interviewing the EW reporter on camera, and Phoenix accusing Antony of selling his secrets.
Perhaps it goes without saying that Here was more provocative when it couldnt be seen, when it existed for most of us purely in the realm of rumor. Despite, say, a report from an early screening that the film included more male frontal nudity than youd find in some gay porn, I counted just two penises, both flaccid and neither filmed more gratuitously than the naked breasts that Phoenix at one point nuzzles, or as graphically as an extended shot including a still photograph of Britney Spearss bare vagina. All of whichlike the p.o.v. puke cam and the many grating scenes of Phoenix berating his paid hangers-onfeel like stock shock tactics, set within a structure too bloated and without rhythm to sustain any sort of sensation. Ostensibly the uncensored story of a life in free fall, Here doesnt offer anything that feels as queasily startling as that Letterman performance.
Think of Im Still Heres first hour as prologue to that epic event of self-destruction. By the time Here regurgitates the late-night TV highlight/career lowlight, Affleck has built enough of a contextabout the beleaguered artist whose true identity and creative impulses have no outlet in commercial culturethat its impact is inverted. When the studio audience laughs, its clear theyre laughing at him, which comes off as cruel; Phoenix seems less apathetic or out of it than paralyzed with sadness. And after the taping, hes all too aware of whats happenedIve fucked my fucking life, he wails. Im just gonna be a joke forever. With this outburst, Im Still Heres psychological strategy clicks into place, and its dramatic momentum increases considerably.
Was this all staged? Probably, but does that matter if it feels true? In fact, the end credits more or less confirm Im Still Here to be, if not a traditional work of fiction, then at least primarily a performance produced for cameras. It seems that this is a secret that the filmmakers and their distributor have been trying to protect through cryptic advertising and limited advance screening (I was required to sign an embargo/confidentiality agreement before entering the theater), hoping to keep the mystery alive. But now, knowing that Im Still Here was more invented than accidental raises more questions than it answers.
In other words, the question of whether or not theyre fucking with us is easily settled; its much harder to determine why theyre fucking with us. And are they even fucking with usthe average viewer with no direct experience of what it feels like to be a celebrity, who can only make inferences and judgments based on the images that are presented to usor are they fucking with their fellow celebrities, who stand to feel the force of the less than flattering aspects of themselves in Phoenixs portrayal? Though clearly mocking the delusions of grandeur embodied in one of Phoenixs rap versesIm still real/I wont kneel/Im the one Gods chosen, bitchmost of the film isnt that broadly funny, or apparently playful. At once deeply felt and devastatingly cynical, Im Still Heres bone-dry satire couldnt exist without the celebrity media feedback loop. But its apparent attack on the Hollywood machine is so insidery, so vicious, that to usthe everyday consumerits just not clear why this stunt needed to exist at all.
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