Review by Rod Bastanmehr
Posted on 04 October 2010
Source DV Projection
Bathed in the audible hum of analog, I’m Still Here opens with a home movie of, presumably, a pre-teen Joaquin Phoenix standing atop a boulder, overlooking a waterfall. He hesitates, looking and jerking his body around, measuring perhaps the distance of the jump, the intensity of the fall, the depth of the water. But his father is watching intently from the other side of the stream, and the camera is recording. He pauses. Then, without warning, he jumps.
I’m Still Here, directed by Phoenix’s friend and fellow actor Casey Affleck, chronicles the remainder of that fall, filling in the gaps between what we’ve seen and what we’ve imagined. That gap began in late 2008, when Phoenix announced his retirement from the acting world during the premiere of what suddenly transformed into his final feature film. From there, he began his pursuit of a legitimized rap career, denouncing his naysayers and openly voicing his contempt for fame, the Hollywood system, and all the other pitfalls that come with having too much too soon. We witness his gradual exit from the limelight and into the darkness, with the lens present for everything from his sudden announcement to his total decline. But while the arc seems gradual, it is quite evident that Joaquin Phoenix had already left the building a long time ago.
That idea of perception — of who Phoenix is or should be — is at the root of whatever the film is presenting: his disintegration? His performance art case-in-point? It’s unclear, at times unbearable and often uninteresting. You can’t stop watching, but that doesn’t mean you care. And that’s Phoenix and Affleck’s whole point, right? That this industry has come to define him, and that definition is built on simply the act of watching and assessing. Which is why he wants out. Which is what sparks the obvious point that filming this is somewhere between counterintuitive and hypocritical.
Of course Phoenix is aware of all this. He’s a smart man, even amidst crumble. His roguish good looks are all but erased, hidden behind a scruffy paranoiac beard that looks like a cross between Kaczynski and Kubrick. His body is deteriorating, and his psyche seems to follow suit. In a crazed state of coked up delirium, he calls a pair of hookers to join him and his entourage. He waxes philosophical in between cigarettes and coughing fits. He brutally berates his colleagues regularly. Who is this man and what are we supposed to feel for him?
The camera, it seems, feels nothing. Intimate only in proximity, it feels detached and cold — a spectator at a circus. Affleck’s raspy voice of reason interjects every so often, and he appears on camera once during the film’s opening moments. But as the filmmaker he keeps appropriate distance. At first it’s because of professionalism. Eventually it seems rooted in horror. The deeper into Phoenix’s fall he and the crew get, the more removed they are from his crisis.
Phoenix’s decay is devastating. His attempts to break into the rap world are repeatedly derailed, and eventually, after a failed production meeting with Sean “Diddy” Combs, Phoenix, while using the frame of his sunglasses to snort a rock of cocaine, has a moment of self-realization. “I’m totally fucked!” he blubbers as he races out of his limousine in search of something natural. What he finds is the stone wall surrounding Central Park, another block. “They think I’m a joke. They think this is all a joke.”
Forget the joke. What to make of a mess? How are we expected to react? The problem with this subgenre — Hoax Cinema — is that its intrinsic curiosity lies in whether or not the film is “real,” a relative term if the medium has ever heard one. Films that dabble around questions of authenticity, either textually or narratively, serve as distractions from a film’s larger ills. Their points become muddled, their goals become gimmicks. Were we scared of The Blair Witch Project because of its power or because of its manipulation? Its potential to not just be scary, but true? How do we forge emotional relationships with these texts when that relationship begins with a question?
I’m Still Here almost shames you for your focus, for simplifying either Phoenix’s breakdown or his point altogether into fact or fiction. It muses on your misgivings: Phoenix acknowledges the contradiction of documenting his escape from the camera lens in front of yet another one, and recognizes questions of whether this is all some sort of stunt. But the reality is that it feels irrelevant. I find myself feeling the most painful emotion one can towards something so personal, which is indifference. Indifference to the question of whether this stunt is a stunt at all; indifference to the trials and tribulations of a star whose decay seems self-imposed; indifference to those around him who, while eventually finding themselves on the receiving end of Phoenix’s lashings, were the first to find humor in his self-brutality.
There are skeletons of interesting questions posed in passing: what is the nature of identity when you are publicly perceived? Are we molded into those preconceptions or are they molded out of us? And, perhaps most importantly, can we ever truly escape our brobdingnagian status as reluctant icons? During Phoenix’s most overt embarrassment, he attacks a heckler at a Las Vegas show clad with a strap-on beard meant to look like the very one Phoenix himself has let grow disheveled. Even amidst his rejection of pop he finds himself inevitably reflected back and canonized.
But Affleck’s camera is uncomfortably close, and when the film should feel emotive it simply it feels exploitative. Whether it’s exploiting us or of Phoenix is unclear, but no one is left unscathed by the time the ambiguous credits begin to roll: if the film is a hoax (which, if the “written by” credit during the film’s closing is any indication, it could very well be) then what emotion is it hoping to garner? Sympathy for Phoenix? His growing paranoia and brutal diatribes prevent that. Curiosity for where the tale will lead? If you’ve seen one shot of Phoenix mumbling his way through a performance, you’ve seen them all. So then the film is simply left as some slice of post-millennial media life. But it feels too contrived to feel real and too overtly operatic to resemble anything close to pain.
Yet Phoenix himself is mesmerizing, and that does not change depending on realism. After his famed disaster of an interview with David Letterman, the closest thing the film has to a climax, Phoenix slums into his changing room, and Affleck closes in on his scruffy face, the sunglasses off and devastation reeking from his tired eyes. Here, fake or not, Phoenix is a broken man.