If movies are measured by the quality of the conversations they spark, “I’m Still Here” must be one the greatest movies of the last decade. If you’ve seen “I’m Still Here,” you’ve talked about it — and talked about it, and talked about it, and talked about it. I started discussing it seconds after its first press screening; five or six fellow critics and I planted ourselves on a street corner and batted around theories for at least a half an hour. Was it a real documentary, as director Casey Affleck and star Joaquin Phoenix continued to insist at that time? Or was it all a hoax, as rumors had suggested since word of the project about Phoenix’s much-publicized meltdown first leaked out? We settled nothing, and had so much fun doing it.
Even after Affleck confessed that “I’m Still Here” was a put on, I never lost my fascination with — or my admiration for — this insanely self-destructive work of art. I’ve continued to have great conversations about it, too: with fellow film writers who argue that the movie was a disgrace because it destroyed the box office prospects of “Two Lovers,” whose press tour Phoenix sabotaged by acting like a lunatic; with cinephiles who remain baffled that a talented actor would willingly throw away his career in popular film to make a fake documentary almost no one would see; with industry pros who like to trade conspiracy theories about the film’s true nature — namely that it is, contrary to Affleck’s “admission,” a work of fact that was sold as a mockumentary to smooth over Phoenix’s indiscretions. Whatever “I’m Still Here”‘s reality, those conversations are real and really wonderful.
There hasn’t been a lot of great writing about “I’m Still Here” — maybe because no one’s completely figured out what Affleck and Phoenix were really going for or what they made — but the new issue of n + 1 features a superb essay by Christopher Glazek about the movie, and about the lives of Phoenix and his late brother River. His lengthy, powerful piece considers “I’m Still Here” within the framework of fandom’s continued obsession with River, and River’s continued impact on Joaquin, and posits the theory that Joaquin’s performance in “I’m Still Here” may have been his attempt to wrestle with his brother’s drug-induced death onscreen. From Glazek’s brilliant analysis of the film’s final scene:
“As Joaquin trudges forward in the opaque green water, we no longer see his face, only his bloated body. As the shot goes on and on, Joaquin goes deeper and deeper, until he finally disappears. He does not emerge from the river rebaptized to begin a new life. Rather, he wipes himself out, burying himself in the river, or perhaps in River, the little boy fascinated by waterfalls whose death was greeted by the world with thunderous applause — his greatest performance. The screen goes black, and we’re confronted with the film’s title, as if in rebuke: ‘I’m Still Here.’ Joaquin didn’t make a biopic of his brother. Instead, he emulated him by disintegrating, letting himself be humiliated by everyone, ritually disappearing, and yet playing out River’s fantasy of saying ‘fuck you’ to Hollywood and escaping into music before it was too late.”
In another fascinating section, Glazek reraises all my old questions about “I’m Still Here”‘s origins by showing it to his mother, who hates movies but praises this one because, she says, she’d never seen any actor mimic the breakdown that Glazek’s brother had suffered some years earlier with such eerie precision. Glazek’s essay blurs the line between criticism and autobiography in the same way that Affleck’s film blurs the line between fiction and autobiography, underscoring the way that “I’m Still Here” gets at something true, whatever its core reality (or fantasy). That something hasn’t gone away, and, I suspect, it will still be here for a long time.
Read more of “Phoenixes.”