I'm Still HereGreen lightThe big question hanging over actor-cum-director Casey Affleck’s so-called “meltdown-umentary” about two-time Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix is whether or not this film is one gigantic ruse.

Was Phoenix serious in 2008 when he announced he was quitting his acting career to pursue life as a rapper? Was his spectacularly awkward interview on David Letterman for real? Could I’m Still Here simply be an elaborate con brainstormed during late night binges, designed to fuel a Borat style mockumentary to take the blurring of fact and fiction another noodle-scratching leap forward?

One of the staggering feats this film achieves is to somehow render that question irrelevant. Real or not it’s a wild ride, and an experience that will be remembered for many moons to come.

Opening with camcorder footage of Phoenix as a young boy, Affleck (his brother in law) follows the enigmatic furry-faced Dr John lookalike as he renounces his trade and scuttles into a dark recess of fear, confusion and desperation. The film doesn’t pull any punches: we see Phoenix snorting drugs, partying with prostitutes, mumbling scattered diatribes about the pitfalls of celebrity, abusing his friends and companions and generally acting like an obnoxious lost at sea drug fiend in search of a lifeboat.

The actor-cum-alleged-muso’s terrible hip-hop, marred by klutzy lyrics and mangled elocution, is the strongest suggestion that Affleck and Phoenix are taking the piss. But to what extent? Any clear appraisal of Phoenix’s musical merit is muddied by Affleck’s decision not to present it in a flattering manner – instead photographing his gigs in dark and dank nightclubs with muffled sound, grubby images and rowdy audiences.

But speculation about the authenticity of what transpires in I’m Not Here is ultimately futile. The truth, disappointing for some, is that it’s a little from column A (real) and a little from column B (not real). And which documentary portrayals are any different?

We know that merely the presence of a camera sparks something inside the people around it. We know anybody being filmed is invariably compelled to put on a show, one way or the other.

To remove the self-conscious element of documentary filmmaking would take surveillance style subterfuge of the kind Peter Weir depicted in The Truman Show (1998). In that film the irony was that its protagonist was enthusiastically performing to a wide audience and didn’t even know it. Yes, yes, the whole world is a stage. And in I’m Still Here Phoenix rolls that stage up, smokes it and buts it in your face in a stunning display of grotesque outlandishness that scores serious points just for sheer audacity.

In the corker Australian documentary Bastardy (2008), Aboriginal actor Jack Charles gabbed and fibbed, fuelling the filmmaker’s desire for spicy content. He was obviously gilding the lily, or, given his confessional reflections on a life of crime, fame and destitution, drowning it in tar, talking up his turbulent times to solicit interest rather than empathy.

Andrew Dominik’s Chopper (2000) biopic played with the adage “never let truth get in the way of a good story.” Doco subject and bestselling author Norma Khouri fascinatingly maintained a lie to the bitter end of Forbidden Lie$ (2007). Capturing the Friedmans (2003), which documented a real-life American family ensnared in paedophilic-related controversy, presented so many wild “truths” they couldn’t possibly all be real.

The point is: Jean-Luc Godard got it the wrong way around when he said “cinema is truth twenty-four times a second.” A good movie is a well-manufactured lie.

In the documentary genre – using that label to span everything from shorts to features to webcams and home vids – everybody wants to steer how they’re portrayed. Everybody tries to manipulate the filmmaking process. Everybody plays a character. I’m Still Here takes that knowledge and imagines what would happen if the subject didn’t let go. If they held on for dear life, even as their own creation turned into a train wreck.

Performances like the kind exhibited in this raw and ugly film are virtually non-existent in the upper echelons of the moviemaking biz. I’m Still Here is a protest against the glitz, glam and artifice that disguise the nasty underbelly beneath commercial filmmaking.

The central role is so gutsy it beggars belief. Indeed, this has become the film’s selling point – the uncertainly of whether or not you can believe that it’s really happening.

Phoenix has inverted the transformative process usually touted as evidence of good acting. Instead of leaping into a character and groping around inside a different skin, he behaves like a man trying to leap out of one – risking not just his “character” in the film but laying his own credibility on the line, daring audiences not to believe in a different person but to believe he is precisely the person he presents himself to be.

A key moment early on provides some clues to the puzzle of I’m Still Here, a response to the “what the hell is this?” reaction each viewer will ponder with varying levels of interest and effort. Some will write it off, some will be propelled to look further.

Phoenix goes on a rant about how acting in the traditional Hollywood studio sense – cut, retake, move a little to the left, speak a little louder, straighten your back etcetera – isn’t creative expression. Whether or not you believe the events that transpire in this film, Phoenix’s hold of this belief is obviously rock solid.

Rarely is the point better made that Hollywood is a place where dreams are broken, not made, where accoutrements of celebrity do little if anything to assuage the angst of every soul who struts down Sunset Boulevard and smiles for the cameras.

Budding actors spend their lives trying to shoulder into a delusion that things will be better at the end of the rainbow, that one lucky break will lead to another, that the pot of gold beneath the colours will reward them plentifully. Those lucky enough to arrive at the awful truth are more likely to discover that the pot is a bowl of coke, a box of pizza and a packet of condoms, and the sunshine that once brightened their dreams turns into daylight that hurts and throbs when the party ends and the hangover begins.

Repeatedly reciting lines from a script at the beck and call of directors who require every whim tailored to the hemstitches of predesigned and literally storyboarded ideas is – to paraphrase the thick-bearded man – not a form of creative expression. It’s a dog jumping through a hoop, an animal on command.

That sober knowledge – that the mainstream acting industry is about constraining rather than enhancing expression – goes to the dirty heart of what this business is all about, and what I’m Still Here expostulates. David Lynch represented these feelings as a kaleidoscopic whirlwind of dark visions in Mulholland Drive (2001). Here they’re represented with a nakedness, a staggering sense of exposure that goes well beyond warts and all.

Were you really there in I’m Still Here, Joaquin Phoenix? Was it truth? Fiction? Soul searching? Shits and giggles?

Doesn’t matter. This rotten, perverse, terrific film is one quintessentially of our times. It dots its own unique blotch on a postmodern cultural landscape where audiences are forced into doublethink, to simultaneously believe and disbelieve what they see and hear, to try and comprehend where fact and fiction collide into an indistinguishable mesh, and to criticize the processes throughout.

It is a barf-streaked piss-soaked insider account that exposes Hollywood for what it really is: a cesspit of fools, broken dreams and misguided ambitions. And, at the same time, a place where the cracks produce the brightest lights and where bald desperation can lead to brilliant studies, celebrations and feats of art.

It requires fearlessness and recklessness to make yourself the subject of a film like this. You might call it courage, were it not for filmmakers’ apparent bemusement about the entire process. But the line between fearlessness and courage – like so much in this film, as in life – is blurred, and it takes a bold person to claim which way or the other.

Hovering above Phoenix’s proverbial and literal streak marks, the splotches on his psyche and bed sheets, is that simple question: is this real or not? But again, it misses the point. Every documentary portrayal you’ve ever seen is either fiction or thinly veiled theatrics.

It is a daring word to use given the hullabaloo and hoopla surrounding the release of I’m Still Here, but that doesn’t make it any less relevant: honesty. This is one of the most candid and bare-chested (literally and metaphorically) portrayals of the life of a high profile Hollywood actor you will see, whether that actor is the “real” Joaquin Phoenix or not, and whether he meant to scale such an achievement or whether he fluked upon it by happenstance or stupidity.

And what a tantalizing irony to mingle with the brutal street curb honesty on display in this peculiar and memorable film: the knowledge that the very foundation of it could be bullshit.

I’m Still Here’s Australian theatrical release date: September 16, 2010

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey