You can come to view I’m Still Here any number of ways. One is the way I viewed it: with little knowledge of the premise or the scandal or the reports about its legitimacy from entertainment news. You can view this film with tons of knowledge on the subject of Joaquin Phoenix, of his film career, of his friends and relatives, his dead brother, his famous brother-in-law who directed this thing, and of his career-breaking or making latest move—creating a rapping, homeless-dreadlock and beard growing, weight-gaining non-acting persona called “JP.”
You could view I’m Still Here with less knowledge than me, and you might even laugh the hardest. The movie shows all the key moments in the history of Joaquin’s short acting hiatus, so no background is needed.
Or you could be like the weird superfans who went to Joaquin’s second and last rapping performance, in Miami, included in this documentary. Those kids that showed up wearing fake beards and sunglasses got their fifteen minutes, however confusing their message ended up, behind each lens of Phoenix’s project.
If you see this movie and don’t get right away that it’s faked, you shouldn’t watch movies. But, somehow, I didn’t cringe (much–the P. Diddy part was pretty bad). In fact, the acting is brilliant. It’s really real. Like, what realist acting should be. It’s all totally outlandish that this would be filmed as reality, but it’s all believable as a story because it’s acted well.
One thing I like about I’m Still Here is that, even if it’s a hoax, it is a documentary*. It’s about fame and Hollywood and the way a celebrity is pampered until he is helpless and then thrown out once he’s unattractive (which, by the way, somehow, Phoenix still isn’t) and all the stuff we think about when we think about Marilyn’s and Kurt’s and Ruslana’s and Viveka’s and Daul’s deaths and Britney’s breakdown and Lindsay’s arrests.
The conception of this documentary tricked some, and it bored others, and it got cult-style attention from a select few. The thing is, this film is faked, and Casey Affleck said so, but amazingly, this film does not manipulate the way most documentaries that claim to be honest do.
Old people that have never heard of JP, YouTube channel hosts that follow his career’s Oscars and binges, hipsters that dress up and actually pay to see him fall off a stage again, other celebrities, and people like me, whatever that is, see this movie and learn something they already knew: Something about the industry chewing up and spitting out. Something about a young boy having a world of fantasy created for him, and unknowingly slipping over the edge of that world once he breaks some unspoken rules. Something about the one elephant in the room that dispelled all myth of JP by never being mentioned. Something as sad and deep-rooted as that death that stands for all those other deaths that haunts vaguely, but is easily ignored.
We all knew it all along. Everything. That Phoenix is a great actor, that celebrities buy drugs and women, that they talk shit about everyone and they pay people to pretend to be their friends. This movie probably isn’t going to change anything except for Phoenix’s own career, which is what would’ve have happened if he wasn’t faking his hip-hop leanings anyway. And every person who sees this film, who was afforded his or her own opinion on the subject beforehand, they’ll all leave with that same opinion, but with more enthusiasm. Because this movie is really entertaining. And—paradoxically—that’s what we’re told we want, and I’m okay with saying that I’m being told something that’s true.
I’m thinking about all of this in retrospect, of course. What I said right after seeing the movie is, I’m Still Here is fucking hilarious. The whole thing is funny. Phoenix is like Vincent Gallo if he smoked enough weed to turn into the guy that Zach Galifinakis always plays, if that guy was kind of retarded and a big rich bully. I mean he literally gets shit on. Pretty raw.
*I’m basing my interpretation of this idea on a list the great Barbara Cully recently made, which is based on Benjamin Woo’s article, “The Fourth Estate and the Ninth Art”, and others he appropriates:
- Like journalism, a form of evidentiary representation–it exists as a record of people and events.
- It handles its evidence and its relationship to its evidentiary function differently from journalism.
- Documentary is “the creative treatment or interpretation of actuality” (Grierson quoted in Nichols)
- A clear distinction exists between “newsreel” and “documentary”(Stella Bruzzi)
- The function of documentary is to provide structure and meaning.
- The direct cinema movement proved that documentary’s driving ambition is to find a way of reproducing reality without bias or manipulation and that this pursuit is futile.
- While journalism has attempted to veil its workings in quasi-scientific objectivity, documentary has instead attempted to demonstrate that the truth represented by a recording becomes more truthful and more authentic as it displays the fact of its own recording.
- The juncture between reality and filmmaker is the heart of any documentary (it is reflexive).
- Documentary has both reflexive and performative modes. Performative “constructs evidence where no documents exist” (Rabinowitz). As in making visual evidence out of speech.