I’m Still Here

September 15, 2010

Opening with home video footage of Joaquin Phoenix as a young boy, dated February 12 1981, I’m Still Here (2010) indicates at the outset that it is an observational documentary in the first instance. The young Joaquin is about to take a literal “leap of faith” from a rock face into a lake which serves as a weak metaphor for the footage that will follow as he retires from acting and attempts to embark upon a new career as a rap/hip-hop artist.

It seems a shame that the film is tainted by so much hyperbole surrounding the authenticity of the subject matter when in fact that seems to me just  about as important as the PR spin that claimed The Blair Witch Project (1999) was “real”. Whether or not Phoenix has actually retired from acting and whether or not he is “serious” about focusing on “his music” doesn’t actually change the fact that I’m Still Here is a fascinating picture of a man who is – one way or another – at the precipice of his sanity and of his career. Not exactly an advertisement for future employment of any kind, I’m Still Here gives a damaging view of Phoenix (honestly, hoax or not) and reveals a couple of truths about the world of celebrity in its wake.

On the question of the film positing itself as an observational documentary, one can of course, stay until the closing credits cease to roll to see that Joaquin’s father is in fact played by Casey Affleck’s father in the film and other such “non-authentic” roles the thanks yous and acknowledgments “expose”. But given that myths surrounding observational documentary’s necessity to literally and objectively observe of its content have been both academically (see any of Bill Nichols‘ excellent and extensive writing on the subject) and popularly (with the emergence of self-reflexive documentary discourse, the use of re-enactment, animation, CGI and other “stand-in” modes of communicative visuals that have become equally as acceptable as the more subtly manipulative formal elements of shot-composition, lighting, music, editing etc) dispelled, it seems pointless to dwell on this issue. Furthermore, I’m Still Here is directed by Casey Affleck (Joaquin’s brother-in-law), so it is pretty much a given at the outset that the film’s POV is intended as an “intimate” (even familial) view to Joaquin’s life rather than as an objective omniscient recording thereof.

So accepting the merits of the film at face value and taking into consideration that staging certain scenes doesn’t necessarily negate the overarching project of the film, the question really comes down to: exactly what is the film’s project? It seems to me at least that one of the things this film is most interested in doing is showing a Hollywood star as a flawed and “real” human being in the first instance, and revealing a popular industry for the damaging environment it really is in the second. Sure, this isn’t exactly “breaking news” but what it is, irregardless of its “constructedness”, is honest. And it is this element of honestly which ultimately affords it with documentary merit. Moreover, if the film is in fact a hoax then its revelatory project is only further emphasised by its then ability to confoundedly manipulate ordinary cinema-going audiences.

Phoenix says at the outset of the film, “Think whatever you want. Hate me or like me, just don’t misunderstand me.” His words serve as a segue into dispelling a myth created by the industry: the persona the public know to be Joaquin Phoenix is an actor, not a man. So, watch and listen because the bullshit of the film industry is extreme and, as we are to later learn, exactly the same as the bullshit of the music industry. In fact, the film would have its audience believe that all artistic endeavour as it operates within the confines of an industry is essentially pointless. Moreover, Phoenix is saying that when you live in the public eye you aren’t allowed the human privilege of making mistakes; of saying something and later reneging on it; that there are certain expectations people have of you that must be live up to. The film is asking here what happens when you are in the public eye and then fail to live up to those expectations? Nay, it is not just asking, the film itself is an exercise in not living up to those expectations, something beautifully and humourously demonstrated by the filming of inanity, Joaquin asking Affleck, “Are we really filming just driving in a fucking car?”

Often uncomfortalbe, but also incredibly funny, Phoenix presents an unlikeable version of himself that is cleverly empathetic and as such, ironically, likeable. Who doesn’t like a flawed, misunderstood individual? Although his hip-hop (if it may even be so-called) absolutely sucks and he even rhymes Joaquin with spleen at one time (no word of a joke), but this only further operates to endear him to his audience. Don’t ordinary people try and fail? Doesn’t this make an A-list Hollywood actor an ordinary person therefore? Perhaps this is just another industry tool to suggest that we, as “ordinary” people, are all essentially alike and that our failures suggest we can also have great successes – if we just walk the proverbial line and adhere to the terms of the system’s stern social contracts?

Before insulting Ben Stiller who comes to Phoenix to offer him a part in the recently released art house film Greenberg (2010), Joaquin says “I’m going to try not to make us all look like asshoes.” which he, of course, is yet another thing he fails to do. But one thing here is clear: the “industry” is charged as guilty of self-perpetuating myth. Phoenix admits his uncertainty at the outset as to whether or not the industry said he was complicated and so he was, or whether he was complicated and so the industry said he was and he further played to it. But either way, he or industry have now said that he is not only complicated but a complete fuck-up and resultantly he feels pressured to continue to play to it. Self-perpetuating myth is a dangerous thing and hoax or no hoax Phoenix finds himself at the centre of a black hole: a man, like any other, whose job security is now in the very least uncertain and whose failures, true or not, have been widely exposed.

I’m Still Here opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday September 16 and is released through Roadshow Films.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

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4 Responses to “I’m Still Here”

  1. Lee said

    Really fantastic review, Tara. You raise some excellent points.

    One thing I have to disagree with is the relevancy of whether it’s real or a hoax. I think that question completely informs the reading of the film. Watching I’m Still Here as a real documentary is an entirely different experience from watching it as a hoax.

    As you quote, Joaquin says “Hate me or like me, just don’t misunderstand me”, and it’s that understanding that’s key. The fundamental understanding is not “Is this real?”, of course, but is the deeper issues the film raises, those of identity and worth and meaning. But to get to those deeper issues, we must first combat the surface question: is it real or not? Delving into the meaning of the film cannot be truly done until that question is answered.

    Again, great stuff.

    • Tara Judah said

      Thanks for your comments Lee.

      I take your point that the question is relevant (I have been perhaps a little too dismissive here), though I personally think it is the asking of the question that is more interesting than whatever the answer might be.

  2. Shannon said

    It’s not coffee and Minties though.

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