Tag Archives: Joaquin Phoenix

Tell It Slant: Of Pink Boys, Masters, Muppets and/or Men

by Carl Wilson

There’s a recent essay by a person I know a little bit, the poet and critic Stephen Burt, called “My Life As a Girl,” in which he explores a twilit place in the gender continuum – that he likes to wear women’s clothing sometimes, but only sometimes, and doesn’t feel like he is a woman, but maybe that he’d wish to be one, at least sometimes. (That’s him above.) He muses that he is a grownup version of the “pink boys” that the NYT Magazine wrote about in August (that piece is well worth reading too).

I liked Stephen’s essay the way I like anything that tangles up the strings of the either-or. In the movement to recognize trans-people’s identities, as I think generally happens when there’s a breakthrough of recognition, realignments of categories, there’s a tendency to talk as though the boundaries are fixed and definitive. This is often necessary, in order to make practical demands or simply to establish some clear space. But there’s also some losses and diminishments that happen there, at least temporarily. “My Life As a Girl” reminded me of the way “queer” was used more in the 1990s to put forward the skewed inbetweenness of much of life and identity. No matter how you define yourself, you have a queerness to you, and Stephen’s piece really vividly challenges us to honour that – to “tell it slant,” as Emily Dickinson advised.

I most identified with the section in which Stephen talks about his attraction to “twee” music, an indie-pop subgenre in which “nobody wanted, or tried, to be a real man.” In my aesthetic life, I’ve often embraced the apparently weak and girly, or at least the brazenly non-masculine – poetry, soap-operatic melodramas and miniseries, the fantastical, and so on. But as I’ve aged I’ve been drawn more to varieties of realism than I once was, and some of that tweeness has definitely drained away. I appreciated having the frillier, featherier part of my taste tickled by Stephen’s story.

Two very different movies I’ve seen lately touched a similar nerve, both of them through music. (And note, I’m going to “spoil” things about both, so if that kind of thing raises your umbrage, act accordingly.) The first is The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest epic, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix squaring off against each other in a life-duel – it’s a mentor-student relationship, a father-son one, and finally a suppressed love affair. That’s hinted at in various sequences in the movie but only fully acknowledged in their final scene together, when the Master sings “Slow Boat to China” to his wayward ward, shakily as a confession, almost an apology – that perhaps if he’d admitted his infatuation earlier, their dealings with each other needn’t have been so violent, one long wrestling lock between two scorpions.

The story is hypermasculine, although ultimately the most powerful person in it is a woman, Amy Adams’ beautifully controlled performance as the Master’s vigilant wife, who by seeing through the absurdity of the boys’ games is able to turn them to her advantage, at least as much as her subservient position allows.

Like Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood, it’s about (among many other themes) the way that blinding your heart to the queer fractures in your self can be fatal, though how deliberate the resulting annihilation is (“fast living, slow suicide”?), it’s impossible to be sure.

And then there’s another recent Amy Adams movie – the one with Jason Segel, songs by Brett McKenzie (Flight of the Concords) and a whole bunch of muppets. And the Oscar-winning song, “Man or Muppet.”

There’s another male dyad here, but this is the triumphantly queer, comic version in contrast to The Master’s tragic one.

The queer hinge in the whole Muppets movie is Jason Segel’s relationship with his “little brother,” a muppet named Walter, who is small, asexual and childlike. It’s amusing throughout the film that the fact that his brother is a muppet a tenth his size has never given Segel pause until now, and what to make of that is  unstable – at times it seems Walter might have some kind of developmental disability, or has somehow been traumatized (the absent parents, perhaps).

But the emotional crux of the plot is that Walter has to separate from Segel to take his place in the muppet world – a very queer storyline, about moving from birth family to chosen family, which Walter manages in a beautifully campy gambit I won’t give away. And Segel, meanwhile, has to separate from Walter to vouchsafe his hetero-masculinity with Adams, in line with the “manchild to family man” arc of a lot of the Judd Apatow-style, non-puppet-musical comedies that Segel’s normally in. (That said it’s worth mentioning that Adams’ very girly character is first seen repairing a car and later proves to be a master electrician.)

But the “Man or Muppet” song serves, in what might otherwise be a very rote story, to acknowledge and mourn the double-edgedness of that choice, with both Walter and Segel singing about their mutual queer-identity crisis into mirrors where the muppet sees himself as a man (Walter sees the actor who plays the Aspergers-savant case Sheldon on Big Bang Theory) and Segel sees himself in muppetface (which is at once funny and unheimlich). But the trick is in the chorus when they sing: “If I’m a muppet, then I’m a very manly muppet,” and “If I’m a man, that makes me a muppet of a man.” For all kinds of practical, life-map kinds of reasons, or at least in the eyes of Hollywood, you may have to make some socially legible choices around sex-gender identity as an adult, but you do need at least the leeway to affirm, the way Segel does at the end: “I’m a muppety man/ That’s what I am.”

(unfortunately I can’t find the actual movie clip, only the official trailer-ized one, in which other scenes from the movie are cut in – it doesn’t quite have the same effect, but you’ll get the idea)

… Otherwise you may end up confining your true self in a ship in a bottle, drifting so slowly it will never reach China or any other port, all by itself, alone. By contrast, Segel and Walter’s duet, like Stephen’s essay, is a true anthem for the Ambiguity Liberation Front.

PS: The muppet movie’s other delightful little ode to wholesome perversion is “Me Party” sung in a similar dissociated-duet by Adams and Miss Piggy, which includes a nice little Chaplin tribute, and gleefully owns up to its onanistic subtext in its final line. Adams just shines.

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Filed under carl wilson, literature, movies, music, other

I’m Still Here (2010) – a movie by Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix

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.

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Filed under margaux williamson, movies