I'm Still Here," aka the "Joaquin Phoenix movie" at a matinee and my mind was absolutely shattered to pieces by it. To use some of my old language, it was a mind melt with extra cheddar maybe even some DJ Steve velveeta. Initially was lukewarm to the film because I couldn't tell if it was authentic or not, so when director Casey Affleck revealed in the New York Times that it was all a spoof, I had to see it right away.
The film opens with footage of a "young Joaquin" jumping off a waterfall into jungle spring in Panama. Right away we know that his is a life that has constantly been on screen. What follows is a bizarre narrative of Phoenix trying to become a serious hip hop musician. But this is not a film about Phoenix's musical ineptitude, it's a film about the negative culture of celebrity and entertainment that is dominating our land.
Early in the film, Phoenix states that he "feels stuck as a character in his own life." Upon hearing this I was reminded by Neal Gabler's classic book Life The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality. In that book Gabler asserts that the real lives of celebrities are the purest form of entertainment. At one point in the story, Phoenix talks about he feels like a puppet, with everyone else pulling the strings. He then spends the film and spends the film fighting for his self identity against these puppet masters,
When one thinks of a "puppet master" one thinks of a single person pulling the strings on someone's career. This is a very 20th century way of viewing celebrity. Individual celebrity is now shaped by the people, people like you and me, who crave the 24 hour news cycle. Affleck makes a point to show us in every public appearance just how many people have their camera phones out, how many youtube videos people have sharing their opinions, how many news sources cover every second of his life. There is another level in that the talking heads we see in the film include ourselves. Everyone was talking about his famed Letterman appearance when it occurred, not just the internet, we lived this story.
Unlike other fake documentaries like "Borat"(a link to a old school college article) and "Bruno," where Sacha Baron Cohen tricks people and the audience laughs along, there isn't much laughter in this film. As viewers have a personal history with the "character" (I mean who didn't love Gladiator), so seeing a familiar face apparently go off the rails is uncomfortable. The strange feeling of watching it "fall apart" is enhanced because the character is not some silly Kazak, but a two time Academy Award nominated actor.
Halfway through the film Edward James Olmos shows up and plays the part of Obi Wan Kenobi to Phoenix. Everything Olmos says is beyond deep, but the crux of it is that only in the darkest parts of our lives do we find rebirth. He explains that life is a cycle and a person like a water drop, must evaporate, and be reborn to reclaim his self worth. This is heady stuff and is the only scene in the movie where Phoenix is totally focused on someone's words. He carries this with him as he falls to pieces on his infamous Letterman appearance.
He takes this advice and descends on the panamian jungle to visit his "father." It is here among the lush forest and waterfalls that he truly finds peace. Away from the cameras, away from the people, away from technology he wades through the waters where the film began until he is submerged, disappeared from the culture of reality TV narratives, camera plagues, and TMZ.
And now we face the real question. If he has succeeded in destroying his image, are we witnessing his rebirth? Check out this picture of him sneaking into the Venice Premiere of the film. Well first off, he'll be on Letterman tonight, and make no mistake, everything is riding on this appearance. He has emerged victorious over the puppet masters and now he need to tell us what he really is. Is he an asshole? A genius actor? A stupid actor? A rapper? A son? A brother? A friend? A two time academy award nominee? What is he? Who is he?
He is himself and we're just the puppet masters. Are we still us?