Sunday, 4 September 2011

I'm Still Here 2010

When Joaquin Phoenix announced his retirement from films in 2008, the news divided the camps pretty quickly into people who believed it and were stricken, people who believed it was an elaborate hoax, people who didn't believe it at all and thought it was a publicity stunt...and people who thought it was a very cleverly staged project. I fell into the last category.

Having admired Joaquin's acting for years, I distinctly remember watching him talk to the press after receiving the Golden Globe for Walk the Line (2005) and thinking that he is genuinely uncomfortable with crowds and does not know how to deal with praise and attention. He came across as a humble guy, who loves his job, and does not quite know how to handle the perks. Every interview or public appearance I saw since then just reinforced this image of someone who does not speak intelligently or confidently, but still tries to be nice when confronted with a mic and a camera. So, the entire retirement announcement, and Joaquin's subsequent appearances, where he seemed clueless about how rude and arrogant he sounded, just did not seem to fit the bill.

A lot has been written about how disturbed his upbringing was, about how the drug-induced death of his brother further destroyed his sanity, about how he is sometimes not able to tell the difference between reality and a character - and who knows all that may be true - but I just think that what ever his inner demons may be, he's not really insane - and Joaquin Phoenix, the rapper, did not only look insane, but also completely unprepared for this new career. For an actor, who is so true to his characters, so well-prepared for his craft, being this unaware of the music industry and his inaptitude as a rapper, reeked of a staged stunt. Soon, there was talk of Casey Affleck directing a documentary about Phoenix's new life and I was sure of my initial suspicions.

It has taken me a while to get to I'm Still Here and though quite disturbing at some points, I found it amusing. If Affleck and Phoenix genuinely went out to make this film, as they claim, to illustrate how most celebrity reality shows are staged efforts, then they have done a good job.

The film starts with Phoenix's turmoil about his professional life, about the lack of creativity in his so-called 'creative' career, and his conclusion that he will express himself through music, as that's what he feels he can relate to. We then chart our way through the announcement, the reactions from friends and media, the attempts at building the new career, the spiral into drugs and debauchery, and most cringe-worthy of all, the disintegration of all Phoenix's relations with his staff and associates.

Way before the end credits, where real names of some of the main characters in the film are revealed, it's quite obvious that this isn't a real documentary. The absolute lack of family members or friends in the story, the excessive focus on drugs earlier in the film and next-to-none later, the reactions of some of the people (Ben Stiller and P. Diddy, so very clearly trying to deliver to the camera) are dead give-aways. There are scenes, which are so over-the-top, it's hard to believe they're real (even though we all have read stories about celebrities treating staff in a worse manner, drunken and drug-fuelled parties that are far more out-of-control, and egos that are far more inflated), but there are moments in the film, where we can't help but believe, in spite of ourselves, that this may not be Phoenix's story, but it could be any one else's story (Joaquin runs out of his car into the bushes and breaks down about how he's told everyone he's quit acting, but has now made a mess of singing, and has 'fucked' his life).

The film may have been conceived with the idea that reality shows aren't real, but through the course of its narration, it highlights the pressures a celebrity is constantly under. How a decision, how ever misguided, is covered by the media and is mocked at every given opportunity. The coverage Joaquin Phoenix received, over the year after his announcement, is used in the film. The disastrous David Letterman interview, the spoofs at awards ceremonies, the discussions on entertainment news shows, all portray how quick everyone is to put celebrities on pedestals and remove them when required and trample over them, without much effort from them for either position. One of my favourite scenes is when a reporter comes to speak to Joaquin and says that all reporters standing outside are discussing how this entire thing is a hoax, but he can see how Joaquin is actually really into his music. Joaquin beats the reporter at his own game and says that he finds it disrespectful that anyone would consider this a hoax or a joke, because this is his life, and they're implying that his life is a joke. Joaquin goes on to tell the reporter that he may pretend that the other reporters are asking this, but it's obvious that the reporter himself is asking this question. The indignation that Joaquin is faking through the film, could have been real if this film was real. And it would have been fair.

Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix are two very interesting actors of their generation, who have put together an interesting film (albeit, a bit too long), which is successful not for the reception it got itself, but rather for the reception that its making got. Worth a watch.

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