Notes on: I’m Still Here

(Casey Affleck, 2010)

If this mockumentary proves anything, it’s that Joaquin Phoenix is a great actor and Casey Affleck is a willing prankster. I’m Still Here, which sets about documenting Phoenix’s apparent resignation from the acting world in 2008 – at the behest of a desire to become a hip hop artist, smacks of an actor desperate to prove that his acting abilities are still very much intact, utilising the medium to exemplify his dynamic change of pace. This is somewhat lost and waylaid in Affleck’s film (his directorial debut), which throws up questions about the notions of celebrity and mental illness as quickly as it lets them pass by unanswered and unmediated.

It’s odd that Phoenix chose to ignite his public image in such a drastic way as he does so here, because his career was really starting to take form in 2008. An Oscar nomination for Walk the Line here and a string of impressive indie’s there, Phoenix was an actor whose increasingly productive freedom of choice was fast becoming a formula for success, for audiences to sit up and take note of his obvious gift for commandeering great performances. Though it’s done little to tarnish his career post-film, with Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest The Master acting as a comeback of sorts, I’m Still Here is still something of a self-serving vanity project that spotlights a side to Phoenix that was once unimaginable given the effortless articulacy and charisma he displays in interviews before filming for the documentary took place. His physical transformation from a clean-shaven Hollywood star to a scatty haired, bearded and portly shadow is matched by strange and unnecessary sequences that are probably more vulgar than they need/have any right to be (male nudity, scenes of oral sex, defecation, etc).

It’s a full-bodied and at times naturally moving performance from Phoenix, especially in the last shot as he wades through a progressively deep river in Panama (where he visits his father), though it is outbalanced by Affleck’s erratic direction, which has inspired moments that are few and far between. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the film takes place after that notorious ‘interview’ with David Letterman: Affleck cuts together a montage of the media storm that quickly erupted; from Ben Stiller’s parody at the Academy Awards to Youtube deconstructions that called into question Phoenix’s sanity. This is a blistering piecing together of just how Affleck and his protagonist – intentionally – took the whole business for a ride, and how easily a chilly performance on a talk show can have serious ramifications on your public image, as fickle as these things are in conjunction with celebrity. Yet scenes like this are never given the clout needed to be particularly engaging, as are the emotions Phoenix apparently feels (and is whipped into a frenzy by) which quickly become squandered by the film’s own artifice. The irony that is Joaquin effectively turning to cinema to escape from cinema is similarly left unexplored, his resolute “I don’t want to play the character of Joaquin anymore” rendered totally docile.

When Affleck revealed that this was all a hoax in September 2010 (something annoyingly left out of the film), what was most surprising was how little anyone cared. The forure was over and everyone was passed caring for Phoenix’s public decimation, which is probably the reaction the filmmaker’s were actually after. But it begs the question; why did they set out to answer questions their meagre film rarely dares to comprehend?

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