I never cared if “I’m Still Here,” the documentary about Joaquin Phoenix‘s retirement from acting to pursue a rap career, is true or a performance piece. It seemed pretty obvious in the years leading up to its release that there was some great level of artificiality. And watching the movie, this becomes even clearer. The fact that it’s primarily fiction is almost totally certain by the end when credits reveal that the film had been scripted — by Phoenix and director Casey Affleck — and was partly filmed in Hawaii, which must have stood in for Panama in the final scenes. I assume the few critics who genuinely believed “I’m Still Here” is real must have left without reading these credits. It is only those now-more-embarrassed writers who might be shocked by Affleck’s confession to the New York Times yesterday:
“It’s a terrific performance, it’s the performance of his career,” Mr. Affleck said. He was speaking of Mr. Phoenix’s two-year portrayal of himself — on screen and off — as a bearded, drug-addled aspiring rap star, who, as Mr. Affleck tells it, put his professional life on the line to star in a bit of “gonzo filmmaking” modeled on the reality-bending journalism of Hunter S. Thompson.
Either way, I still wouldn’t completely label it a mockumentary over calling it a documentary. It’s a mix of both, like a Sacha Baron Cohen film or the 2010 Sundance-winning doc “The Red Chapel.” And either way, I still don’t like it very much. Not in terms of its content. I still like the message, love thinking about the way it craps on Hollywood and the media, but I was bored while watching. Yet I probably appreciate it better as it stands now than how it stood prior to the confession, as a work seemingly meaning to deceive its audience. Affleck claims to have not meant for it to trick people. He apparently thought more people would catch on gradually, knowing at least by end that it was a performance piece. I did (but I will admit I would never have guessed the opening “archive” footage is recently shot and staged).
Still, while very few people were surprised by Affleck’s clarification, I find it somewhat shocking that so many people were at least unsure enough to see this as a necessary confirmation. Actually it’s pretty sad. Basically Affleck is confessing more that he failed as a filmmaker than he’s revealing that Phoenix faked his public life for three years. He’s also pretty much ruined the appeal for many viewers who might have still been curious by the mystery, though his point is probably that he didn’t mean for that sort of discussion. It took over the discourse from the industry study and experiment it really is. And now nobody will learn the lesson the guys meant to teach.
Oh well, at least we’ll probably have a hundred more meta Hollywood mockery by this time next year. We already saw a tiny bit in “Resident Evil: Afterlife,” in fact. And you could even read “Easy A” as an allegory for the Hollywood gossip system. Maybe.
Here’s how others around the film blogosphere reacted to Affleck’s bombshell:
“I never intended to trick anybody. The idea of a quote, hoax, unquote, never entered my mind.” That obviously a lie, but alright, Casey, I won’t think of it as a hoax. Is it better I continue thinking of it as just a sad, incredibly elaborate game of pretend a couple grown men engaged in since 2009?
Mr. Affleck isn’t finished rocking our world yet. Among the inauthentic phenomena he’s prepared to blow the lid off of are:
* The Mars landing in “Capricorn One”
* Breast implants
* The autobiography of Howard Hughes
* The ability of “Mad Men” to make it appear that events from the 1960s are occurring on your television set in 2010
* Your grandparents’ power to painlessly detach your nose from and reattach it to your face
“I never intended to trick anybody,” said Mr. Affleck, an intense 35-year-old who spoke over a meat-free, cheese-free vegetable sandwich on Thursday. “The idea of a quote, hoax, unquote, never entered my mind.”
Wait….”a meat-free, cheese-free vegetable sandwich”? What has that got to do with anything? To me, this sentence suggests that Cieply’s story itself is a put-on. You know what? I’m getting sick of this. I say trust no human being entirely. You know who I trust? My cats. Otherwise believe none of what you read or hear and only half of what you see.
Phoenix turned himself into a bloated, pot-bellied pig wasn’t theatre — he clearly did that.
And I was so appalled and amazed by the scene in which Phoenix’s assistant poops on his boss’s face that I’m going to deliberately defy N.Y. Times-sanctioned “reality” and continue to believe it really “happened.”
My first reaction is: Wow, that really was a great performance. Ten times better than his inspired work in Walk the Line. Yet even as I wipe the critical egg off my face, I want to seize the opportunity to say why I thought the hoax rumor was, in fact, the real concoction […] as a critic who can admit (as any critic should) when he’s wrong, I want to conclude my mea culpa in the playful what’s real? spirit of I’m Still Here by officially launching a rumor of my own: I don’t think that the hoax has ended. Because I think that Casey Affleck’s it-was-all-a-hoax interview with The New York Times is the real hoax. I really, truly believe that. Unless, of course, I’m just making it up.
Does this news make the film less interesting? I’m not sure, but it certainly makes the conversations you can have after the film less fun. In my review of “I’m Still Here,” I wrote “with his first feature as a director, Affleck has made one of the most convincing and interesting movie pranks ever (that is, if he didn’t make one of the most exploitative and morally questionable documentaries ever).” I suspect this movie will eventually be forgotten as a weird footnote on Phoenix’s career, and I wish Affleck’s supposed “subtle clues” designed to “provide hints of his real intention” were a bit less subtle. But I stand by my earlier comments. Affleck and Phoenix pulled off a hoax (sorry Casey, that’s what it is) on a remarkable scale. Despite Affleck’s comments, their achievements are still there.
Why the hell does he admit this before the film has even opened in most parts of the country? Yes. We know it’s a hoax. But, some of us would at least like to go into the movie still believing that Affleck and Phoenix want us to believe it is real.
The big question seems to be, why is Affleck admitting the hoax now? The film just opened. With the reviews it is getting, more people would be going out there to see it. Knowing it is fake, they will probably stay home.
I can see admitting on the DVD commentary it is a fake. But especially with Robert Ebert, in his three star review stating, “All of this is true. At least we must assume it is. If this film turns out to still be part of an elaborate hoax, I’m going to be seriously pissed.”, why ruin the fun now?
I have to admit that I’m a little disappointed that Affleck has decided to make this grand reveal so soon, since I haven’t even had a chance to see the movie yet (and neither have many others). From here on in, we’ll all be forced to watch the movie without just that little bit of uncertainty in our minds, which will be a different experience. But I guess that is probably the point. They were afraid that people were not getting it, and so they decided to let everyone in on the joke. The question is, will this endear people to the film, or will it just piss them off even more? As Peter Jackson will tell you after making his fake documentary Forgotten Silver, most people don’t take kindly to hoaxes.
I’m extremely let down by Affleck. It’s not that I actually wanted the “documentary” to be real and that I was looking forward to buying Phoenix’s hip hop album. I’m just let down because the mystery has been ruined so early. Part of the “fun” of seeing I’m Still Here was that you would be watching something that, if real, would be uncomfortably candid and personal. You would be left with that doubt of what was real and what wasn’t, and that doubt would be part of the film’s magic. […] I’m saddened that Affleck chose to let the secret out so early since the only people who got to have that discussion about the film are mainly the critics and film fest goers who have seen the film so far. Now, all that’s left for the rest of us who were waiting for the film to open around us or to be released on DVD, is a mockumentary where we get to see Phoenix goof around and try to rap. The mystery, doubt, and fun are all gone now.
This whole thing annoys me. They think it’s hysterically funny. I think it’s a joke on the audience. A prank. Not serious at all. Part of my annoyance comes from the fact that Affleck refused to answer questions and deliberately misled the press in Venice and Toronto. Tell us what the thing is and let us judge it accurately. Don’t prevaricate, then say, “Ha!!” That’s a kid playing games, not a serious filmmaker.
Factoring in the movie itself along with the elaborate Letterman put-ons and the staged rap shows, I think the whole thing is kind of brilliant and I’m stunned by the whining.
If Affleck and Phoenix had really pulled off the hoax–i.e., drawn big crowds to see the movie–perhaps their peers would’ve showed more respect. But in Hollywood, people keep their distance from failure, always afraid of being too close to the stink. The early betting line is that Affleck won’t be getting to direct another movie any time soon. Affleck likes to think of the movie as “gonzo filmmaking.” But his detractors see it as little more than clownish score settling. As one industry agent put it, clearly looking ahead to Phoenix’s upcoming appearance on David Letterman’s late-night show, “Boy, if Letterman wasn’t in on the joke, he is really going to take that poor guy to the cleaners.”
Affleck did say that the David Letterman, the CBS late night talk show host on whose show Phoenix seemed to be melting down, was not in on the joke. However, that seems to contradict a Letterman writer who claims the host was in on it in an interview last year with Nuvo, an Indianapolis-based alternative paper.
Was the whole elaborate ruse worth it? If the whole thing was fake, Phoenix put the brakes on a promising career for a few years, humiliated himself during countless “hip hop” performances, and arguably sabotaged the press tour for his last film Two Lovers. Until there’s a more full accounting of what Phoenix and Affleck were trying to accomplish, I’ll withhold judgment.
It is a brilliant stunt to be sure, but oof, there won’t be a lot of goodwill from paying audiences for either of these two for some time. But, in a way, it’s good to know Phoenix is back. He is still kooky (who would actually commit to this kind of thing??), no doubt, but the man can act, perhaps best evinced in the outrageous, “I’m Still Here,” which had many of us fooled. Nothing to see here, please disperse.
An actor doesn’t get to his early 30s with two Oscar nominations on a fluke, and Phoenix’s talent as a performer is not in question. At issue is his fitness to manage his career — or, indeed, his interest in doing so. If Phoenix can prove to industry observers that he’s ready to start acting like a normal person again (in both senses of the phrase), he can regain his former position and be more directors’ first choice. Until then, it’s best for us not to see Phoenix for a while; it’s still not too late for him to cancel his return visit to The Late Show next week.