by Margaux Williamson
(I saw Joaquin Phoenix’s notorious 2008 Letterman Show appearance when he presented himself as a non-responsive, sunglassed and bearded guest. He was mumbling about becoming a hip hop artist. I thought that he was playing with performance in a reality-situation and I was pretty curious. Contemporary culture is still a bit fuzzy on how and when to assign authenticity to the different types of interaction, perspective and persona creation that continue to be created by new technologies. The general public is becoming as attuned, and as confused, with the concept of persona as actors are. A good actor even in his sleep, Joaquin Phoenix seemed as likely a candidate as any to explore persona in a reality-style work (where there is often much sleeping). So I was excited when I heard about the movie “I’m Still Here” being presented as a documentary. When it was announced, by the creators, as a hoax during the Toronto Film Festival, I felt disappointed. A hoax suggest more of a put on than an experiment. It also suggested a bit of a failure. Unambiguous creative sucess rarely needs to come with such foreceful, and unambitious, explanations. I went to see it anyway with my friend Julia Rosenberg, a movie producer, who had also been following the process. We had popcorn.)
Joaquin Phoenix decides to leave acting. It’s confusing being an actor and also confusing to be a celebrity. I believe this. He looks good, he’s hiding out in a well-worn hoodie, smoking at night on a grassy hill and looking down at the bright lights of Los Angeles. His friend, Casey Affleck is filming him. “I don’t want to play the character of Joaquin anymore” Joaquin Phoenix says. This scene is physically dark, seductive and promising. We don’t care if it’s documentary or staged because we suspect that, as with any good documentary or fiction, something truthful might be happening here. Unfortunately this is the most truthful-feeling part of the movie.
Joaquin Phoneix spends the rest of the movie smoking pot, growing his hair, yelling at his assistants and chasing down Diddy (formerly P. Diddy), the famous music producer. Joaquin Phoenix’s plan is to become a successful hip hop artist by finding Diddy and having Diddy produce his album. When securing Diddy’s help fails, along with Joaquin Phoenix’s meager and wildly unsucessful 4 or 5 public hip hop performances, Joaquin Phoenix collapses, mentally and physically, and then returns to his birth place for some water redemption.
In the last scene Joaquin Phoenix walks down a river. It is shallow at first and then becomes deeper. We follow him from behind. There is some “movie music” overlaid – the kind of music that reminds you to have feelings now. It doesn’t give me feelings, it makes the scene feel clumsy, long and sentimental. A joke or not – I don’t know. But at this point in the movie, I was needing some “real” in my “reality tv”. I wanted the music to stop and to at least, after enduring this movie, be allowed to indulge in the refreshingly natural sound of a quiet river. If Joaquin Phoenix was going back to nature, I wanted to come with him.
It’s hard to know what was intended. Did they set out to make fun of reality tv? Were they interested in mocking the public – hoping to hold up a mirror, showing them embracing Joaquin Phoenix as a hip hop artist because he was famous – but then were derailed by the public’s poor reaction to the idea? Were they hoping to say something about the insanity of celebrity culture but then didn’t quite know what to say? Were they trying for a remarkable performance? Was the absense of any visible sign of hard work (on the part of Joaquin learning to be a hip hop artist and Casey Affleck learning to be a director – or the two as artistic collaborators) an indication of the creators conceit of a famous fame-seeker not having to work hard – or was it a genuine misconception about how one goes about making art? Was Joaquin’s painful “failure” after simply not securing one of the world’s most famous music producers and not doing well at a few gigs supposed to really represent genuine failure? Or was it to show someone who is bound by being an actor? Was it all really just to say that something that looked real was scripted? Was the music at the end supposed to be funny?
I wouldn’t ask these question if there was something truthful here at the centre to hold on to (I consider a biting satire truthful for instance). If there was something truthful at the centre, then all these questions would be trivial and besides the point. But at the end, I just had the questions and a wish that the creators had worked longer or harder or had taken the ideas to a more developed place. I think there was a lot of potential. I hope Joaquin Phoenix tries something like this again, just… with everything else different. Much has been made of the ridiculousness of Joaquin Phoenix suddenly becoming a hip hop artist, but no one has mentioned how crazy it is for Casey Affleck to suddenly become the director of a contemporary reality experiment. The traditional well-oiled machine that makes a Hollywood movie might have been an easier choice.
When Joquin Pheonix finally manages a meeting with a hesitant and wary Diddy, Diddy eventually looks over at Joaquin and says slowly, “You can’t come into this shit disrespectfully.” I agree, this shit is hard – respect is essential. That goes for reality tv, experimental movies, and hip hop (acting was properly respected in this motion picture). Joaquin Phonix nods along with me. I believe him.