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A rarity — I was persuaded by a review to see a movie on a topic that’s zzz: the invidiousness of Hollywood superstardom and the attendant post-tantrum stress disorders. Oh, and the metaphysics of the real within the boundaries of a megaceleb reality home-movie.

In brief: In 2008 Joaquin Phoenix, 34, a movie star with two Oscar nominations (Gladiator; as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line), announces he will quit acting to become a rapper. For a year, brother-in-law Casey Affleck (Ben’s younger) films Phoenix’s unsuccessful attempt at his new career and the subsequent meltdown. Notoriously released as a documentary; soon claimed by Affleck as fictional. Phoenix remains silent.

Acting reality: paradox or hoax

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Luke Buckmaster’s review (and afterthought) in Crikey of I’m Still Here is unusual and passionate film writing: an excursion into notions of authenticity; a self-reflexive discussion of how a reviewer is stopped short by movie art so new he questions his assumptions. It has momentum and pressure — I recommend the read.

Pearling together bits of his review (for my own purposes):

“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 …

… this raw and ugly film …

Instead of leaping into a character and groping around inside a different skin, [Phoenix] 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.

So, I went

And I took a friend. We came out perplexed. It’s a hell of a performance from “JP,” rapper non-starter, actor par excellence. The Joaquin Phoenix in the film is utterly objectionable. A moneyed, cushioned star who goes to pot and paunch, who hires “friends” to hang around with him. Never by himself, someone always running the errands. As he says to a woman in the audience at his hip hop performance, ‘I’ve got a millions bucks in the bank. What have you got, bitch?’ Phoenix (and Affleck) show, or invent, a grotesque boor, a monstrous gut and ego dismayingly drug-addled, confused and conflicted. A man who is lost.

— If it’s a documentary Affleck, the subject’s brother-in-law, is unforgivably exploitative; culpable of aiding and abetting Phoenix’s worst instincts and behavior. The character on show is deeply unwell. (So what’s Affleck’s wife, Summer Phoenix, doing all this time about her brother?)

— If it’s a quasi-documentary frame allowing Phoenix to act but also to expose, flirting with the fig leaf of fiction, it’s something startling, greatly more interesting. Nevertheless, while the fictional protagonist of a film need not be at all likeable, a character in a documentary, or semi-documentary, who is abusive and self-delusional forces a different quality of reaction from the viewer — your sympathies and mind are being messed with. (Watching a doco of an emergency room feels different to watching ER or Nurse Jackie.)

— If it’s fictional, or a hoax, or an experiment, I have to ask myself if I care to watch a performance of a celebrity brain-wreck, no matter how excellent the acting. No, I don’t. (Affleck later described Phoenix’s contribution as “performance art.”)

And yet, while I can’t agree with most of Buckmaster’s many-sided argument, I think his reading of the movie remains valid. His complicatedly positive verdict — of the film as art, of the actor as artist — is supported by Margaret Pomeranz, the SMH‘s Sandra Hall and Sandy George on RN’s Movie Time. And … it’s the grumpy old men who don’t like the film, can’t see the point: David Stratton and Evan Williams in the Oz.


Mostly, I love the poster (a little less, post-viewing): its beaut elements. Its supreme simplicity — superstar as police mugshot. The sly, challengingly near-illegible typography that says one thing and demonstrates the opposite. The film confirms that JP’s poseur-bad hair (bad? it’s a conviction without parole) is iconic. The meticulous anti-styling of his topside tendrils. His silhouette against the night sky is unmistakable: it’s hair as signature. The film may as well be titled I’m Still Hair.

The Mulcher homages

One is to fellow movie mad hair, Tim Burton, whose busy, far-out oeuvre is packing them in at acmi till Sunday. (The evening of my visit it was dense with love-couples, suits, kids, goths, geeks, hipsters and retrometros. What is the magnetic appeal of Burton’s camp-horror aesthetic, his misfit persona? His talent cascades river deep and fast and full, but exclusionarily narrow. It leaves me reeling, so I must be an unmisfit.)

Tim Burton: a wild and crazy guy, who knows what’ll he do next?


I realised the family pet, Darko the Wonder Poodle, is the spitting image of bad hair Joaquin Phoenix. (Just pre-haircut, normally his suave self looks like this, or this.) Phoenix can’t rap, but Darko gnarls barkley. And also unlike Joaquin, this pooch is never a punk — Darko is love’s messenger.


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