Print the Legend, Forget the Truth
By Jason Haggstrom, September 24, 2010
The truth: I haven’t seen I’m Still Here, the new film documenting Joaquin Phoenix’s downward spiral as he abandons his acting career in an attempt to become a hip-hop artist. The film sounded intriguing in a Lost in La Mancha kind of way. Where that film captured the destruction of Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote film, I’m Still Here promised to bear witness to the destruction of a very real, and very famous man. There’s often a simultaneous thrill and horror to be found in watching something real be destroyed. I find it all too natural to view terrible events captured on film as cinema even as—or precisely because—I understand that there’s only a television or movie screen separating me from real terror, suffering, and in some cases death. But with this week’s revelation that everything we’ve seen from Phoenix over the last 18 months—the bizarre interviews, the rap concerts, and the unfortunate fights and falls—has all been part of an elaborate performance (so soon after the film’s premiere no less), I’m left wondering if the film still has relevance.
The Letterman interview still feels real to me. And why not? It happened in real time with no "takes" just as Phoenix’s concert appearances happened in front of a live audience at a genuine club. There were no other actors, no extras, and no sound stages on studio lots. We might say that these performances by Phoenix weren’t any less "real" than any other interview where an actor presents their public persona for a hungry audience, even if this Phoenix persona wasn’t the expected one. But now that we know that Phoenix was acting the entire time, director Casey Affleck’s documentation (was he really "directing," and should we call this a "documentary"?) of Phoenix’s faux collapse seems almost redundant. Before I knew of the new truth, I’m Still Here promised to be an extension of the various clips I’d seen over the last 18 months. But now that we know that scenes were staged (and likely shot multiple times in order to get a good take), as Affleck states in his interview with Roger Ebert, I’m left with a complete lack of interest in seeing any of it. Between the interviews, the lampooning at the Oscars, and the concert footage taken from the phones of audience members, I feel as though I’ve already experienced the complete story. What could Affleck’s film possibly do to further the narrative now that we know it was all constructed? Do Affleck and Phoenix not realize that their big reveal can’t possibly exist independent from the film?
Now that Phoenix has openly admitted to Letterman that it was all a performance, the story has an ending. That’s not a good thing. All of the players involved should have realized that going public with the truth would be a disastrous move. This particular type of art, much like the performance art of Andy Kaufman, was an attempt to blur the line between what is reality and what is performance in the public personas of our celebrities. How much better would this narrative have been if Phoenix simply started to appear in films again, clean shaven and well groomed and with no explanation for those lost 18 months during the time of I’m Still Here? Surely, an actor of Phoenix’s caliber and notoriety could have risen from the ashes of an apparent career suicide. Others have done it, most notably Robert Downey Jr., who came back from a drug-addled reality that hit a bottom far below the well that Phoenix had purportedly been drowning in. And what of Kaufman who was so adept at blurring reality and performance that when he died many people (friends included) assumed that "death" was just his latest performance. Kaufman’s sidekick, Bob Zmuda, wrote that at Kaufman’s funeral an old friend stood over the casket and declared, "Hey Andy, I’m here and we’re all alone, so c’mon, man, you can tell me… this is a big fucking joke, isn’t it?"1 We should have been so lucky to have Phoenix’s brilliant performance art go unspoiled by their miscalculation to go public with the truth. For me, the "I" that leads the film’s title no longer reflects upon the Phoenix character so much as it does the film itself. The film is still here, but I can no longer find any reason to care.
Here is the entire story of I’m Still Here as I experienced it with nary a clip from the film:
- From his book, Andy Kaufman Revealed! Best Friend Tells All.