Joaquin Phoenix I'm Still Here

Last week I banged on about Casey Affleck’s “meltdown-umentary” I’m Still Here, which chronicles Joaquin Phoenix’s exit from the confected atmosphere of film sets and his journey into the more (supposedly) liberating surrounds of night clubs and recording studios, where he flexes his rhymes as a neophyte wannabe rapper.

Unsurprisingly the first question that pops into conversation whenever the film is discussed is whether or not it is “real.” As I explained in my sprawling review, this is an interesting question to contemplate but ultimately irrelevant given the well-beyond-warts-n-all honesty of Phoenix’s absolutely brutal portrayal of an actor in Hollywood. It’s the kind of performance rarely exhibited in any film, real or nay, and it deserves to be remembered as such.

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Not long after I published my review this New York Times story appeared online, in which Affleck apparently comes clean and admits the film is a put-on. He likens it to the “reality-bending journalism of Hunter S. Thompson” – a curious definition given Thompson’s seminal work Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is largely considered autobiographical. There is already speculation that Affleck’s “confession” may be part of a double bluff, which demonstrates how much this film has been ensnared – perceptively or otherwise – in a tangled web of truth and lies.

“These were multiple takes, these are performances,” Affleck said, as well as “it’s a terrific performance, it’s the performance of his career.”

This got me thinking: suppose Phoenix (who to my knowledge has maintained his silence on the subject of the film’s veracity) came out and said it was all indeed one elaborate performance, a massive slice of artistic expression. I might not entirely believe the claim, given so much of his “performance” smacks of a rawness that can’t be faked, but such an announcement would generate an interesting conundrum. Suppose Phoenix said the “written and produced by” credits attached to the film, for which he and Affleck are attributed, are evidence that audiences should have known all along that what they were seeing on the screen was just as fake as a Michael Bay mise en scene.

Does this mean I’m Still Here could then be moved out of the documentary genre and regarded as strictly a work of fiction? If so, could Phoenix then be eligible for an Academy Award? On some levels it would be hard to argue that such a nomination – or indeed such an award – would not be deserving, given the actor extended his role well outside the “take one, take two, that’s a wrap” confines of traditional Hollywood moviemaking and lived it for at least two years. That’s performance art and then some.

It reminds me of the mystery surrounding the character of the old Chinese magician in The Prestige (2006), a small role I suspect was inspired by golden era magician Ching Ling Soo, whose life was unforgettably captured in Jim Steinmeyer’s biography The Glorious Deception. Other magicians in the film finally work out the secret to the old man’s most spectacular trick, his trademark show stopper. However there’s just one hitch: it would require a feat of physical strength no geriatric could ever be capable of achieving. Here cometh the lesson: the old man is no old man at all, but a trickster so greatly enamoured by his creative calling that he’s prepared to live a lie, to doggedly maintain an act on stage and off in service of his art.

Could the same kind of “dear god that’s dedicated” plaudit apply to Joaquin Phoenix? Could his passion for acting be so strong that he’s prepared to sacrifice a huge chunk of his day-to-day life in service of an on-screen persona? If so, that is high praise indeed.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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