There are plenty of reasons to hate “I’m Still Here,” but there’s one very good reason to love it: Joaquin Phoenix. When I reviewed the film back in 2010, director Casey Affleck had yet to acknowledge that the movie, a “documentary” about Phoenix’s “retirement” from acting and his attempt to become a hip-hop star, was a put-on. “If Phoenix is acting in some of these scenes,” I wrote at the time, “he is giving one of the greatest and most fearless performances of all time.”
Not long after that piece was published, Affleck caved and finally admitted “I’m Still Here” was a hoax. Now, two years later, Phoenix is back at work with a new and undeniably fictional movie, Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.” His turn as the animalistic disciple of a 1950s cult leader is earning him some of the best reviews of his career (“Mr. Phoenix, his shoulders hunched, his speech barely intelligible, his face twisted, pushes his performance beyond the psychological gestures of the Method (which was very much in vogue in the early days of Dianetics) into a zone of pure, feral, improvisatory being,” says A.O. Scott in The New York Times). With so many people commenting on Phoenix’s “comeback,” it’s feels like a good time to formally acknowledge the demented brilliance of “I’m Still Here” — whose very title suggests that the actor may have experienced some lapses in judgment, but never in talent. And if we hadn’t met “I’m Still Here”‘s “Joaquin Phoenix” we may never have witnessed “The Master”‘s Freddie Quell.
That said, there are indeed some very legitimate reasons to resist “I’m Still Here”‘s weird, uncomfortable charms. Phoenix’s fake meltdown happened during — and basically sabotaged — the publicity tour for James Gray’s beautiful film “Two Lovers.” Affleck and Phoenix waited far too long to own up to their ruse, and their relentless denials often felt churlish and smug.
Sabotaging a movie is one thing; sabotaging yourself is another. If an artist only has so many good years in their prime to create their best work, you could argue that Phoenix willingly sacrificed several of his just to make an elaborate prank about the idiocy of the Hollywood star system and the parasitic celebrity media culture that leeches off it. It makes people angry to watch an incredibly talented person throw away a gift they wished they had — like when Michael Jordan decided to stop being the greatest basketball player who ever lived in order to be a mediocre baseball player, or when Ricky Williams retired from football to smoke weed and study holistic medicine — and it’s easy to understand why.
But let’s give credit where credit’s due: very few people could have pulled off “I’m Still Here”‘s high wire act of long-form public embarrassment. It takes serious balls to risk your entire career to prove a point, or to gain a ton of weight, grow a beard, and get on stage only to rap really (really) badly.
Of course, even in the age of YouTube, a bad club gig captured on crummy cell phone cameras gets forgotten eventually. The stink of a bad talk show appearance on national television is a lot tougher to wash off. For the rest of his life, when people talk about Joaquin Phoenix this infamous appearance on “The Late Show With David Letterman” will be the first thing they mention. Phoenix would later call this interview “a beatdown,” one he’d specifically gone looking for.
A few years ago, film critic J. Hoberman invented the term “kamikaze auteurism” to describe filmmakers who gleefully and masochistically follow their artistic passion far beyond the boundaries of logic and common sense. Examples include Richard Kelly’s “Southland Tales,” Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain,” and Terry Gilliam’s “Tideland” — and, I would argue, “I’m Still Here,” which is maybe the most impressively suicidal example of all. Even if it was all a hoax, who would trust Phoenix enough to work with him? Who would willingly bring him on board, knowing he might turn himself into a performance art piece at any moment? (“I’m quitting acting again — I want to become a professional competitive eater and win the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest.”)
Still, I’m beginning to get the sense that without “I’m Still Here,” Phoenix could never have reached the heights he achieves in “The Master.” Though the movies are totally different, the characters Phoenix plays are actually quite similar. Both are men driven to extremes, antisocial outsiders with serious substance abuse problems shunned to the margins of society. Both have been emotionally twisted by unseen traumas in their pasts. Both are searchers, but neither seems to quite know what they’re searching for.
Phoenix recently told The New York Times just how deeply “I’m Still Here” changed him as an actor:
“‘Going out on a stage publicly and not knowing how people are going to react to you once I experienced that, it made me feel much more comfortable about going into a scene,’ Mr. Phoenix said. On ‘The Master’ he tried out different interpretations of lines and scenes, even going for ‘things that might seem absurd or stupid or don’t make sense or are obviously, quote-unquote, out of character.'”
So if you’ve resisted “I’m Still Here” because you think Phoenix “threw away” his career, or hurt “Two Lovers,” it may be time to let that stuff go (Gray cast Phoenix in his next movie, so he’s clearly not too upset about the whole thing). Whatever damage Phoenix caused to himself or to others also laid the groundwork for “The Master,” where he plays a man compelled to destroy everything he touches. After “I’m Still Here,” Phoenix understood that urge better than anyone.