‘I’m Still Here’ Stays On Message, And That’s What Sells It In The End

I saw “I’m Still Here” earlier this week, Casey Affleck’s documentary(?) covering a period of roughly a year in the life of (former?) actor Joaquin Phoenix. As many of us know, Phoenix seemed to go a little batty starting in late-2008 when he announced his retirement from the world of Hollywood in order to pursue a career as a rapper. The hair grew long and unkempt, the beard became an unmanageable bird’s nest and the drug use, at least from what Affleck’s doc shows, ran rampant.

In short, we were led to believe that Phoenix had some sort of meltdown.

I’m speaking in uncertain terms because the debate that’s raging around the movie is whether or not what we see on screen is a hoax or in some way staged. I’ll address my thoughts on that at the end of this write-up, but first let’s talk about “I’m Still Here” as what it is: a work of film.

This is Affleck’s debut as a director and it shows. The camera work is unsteady and amateurish, the editing is often erratic, just all over the place, and the abundance of self-indulgent takes — particularly the minutes-long sequence that ends the film — simply hurt the brain. “I’m Still Here” is clearly trying to say something about the relationship between celebrity culture and the audience that follows it, but it’s a statement that emerges in a most unusual way. More on that later.

What you’re left with is almost two hours of footage featuring Phoenix in all of his heavily bearded, egotistical, drug- and friend-abusing “glory.” And frankly, it is a fascinating thing to see purely on that level. If all of this is real, it is a very raw portrait of one man’s personal breakdown. The ego was always there I’m sure; the drugs and the general exhaustion Phoenix seems to feel over the celebrity life amp that overblown opinion up to obscene levels. If, on the other hand, it was fake from moment one… well… Phoenix is a far better actor than I think any of us have given him credit for.

What’s remarkable is that he never seems to wake up from this idea that things are going to go his way. From raging over his lack of an invite to President Obama’s inauguration to seeming genuinely rattled when the realization dawns that Diddy doesn’t want to produce his rap album, Phoenix’s elevated opinion of himself overshadows all. He seems genuinely thrown when he looks back at his infamous appearance on David Letterman after the fact; it occurs late in the film, and in the chronology of his breakdown, and it plays like an eye-opening moment. “I f–ked my life” he says over and over again shortly after leaving the Letterman appearance. And yet it’s not long after that he’s back to being the same old abusive nutball.

As far as the “real vs. fake” debate goes, I think the whole question is off the mark. Phoenix had some kind of break, I am firmly convinced of that. I do think that elements of this whole endeavor were staged, and I do think a trick is being played on we, the audience, to a certain extent. There’s plenty of proof to be found for those who look for it.

I’ll use one spoiler-y (ALERT) example. In the film, after much haranguing, Phoenix finally scores an in-studio audience with Diddy, in the hopes of securing him as a producer for his rap album. The meeting does not go particularly well; Diddy gamely listens to a handful of tracks, finds praise for some and criticisms for others, but he ultimately tells Phoenix that he’s not ready, not operating on the right level, to have Diddy as a producer. Turn now to an interview MTV’s Josh Horowitz did with Diddy during the “Get Him to the Greek” press tour:

Here the producer does his best to play it cool. He never answer’s Josh’s question of whether or not this is a “Borat”-style experiment outright. What he does say is that Phoenix is serious. More importantly, he says that they mixed a record together. It’s true that that might have happened sometime after “I’m Still Here” wrapped, but there’s no evidence at any point in the film that the producer has any intention of working with Phoenix.

Clearly not everything is on the up-and-up here. I’ll admit to initially being convinced that this was the real deal after the movie ended. But as I mull things over and see evidence to the contrary mounting, I think more and more that the truth falls somewhere in the middle.

Phoenix probably did genuinely get tired of sitting in the spotlight. And I think he intentionally stepped away and let himself go, at least to a certain extent, as a way of acting out. Something to draw attention to himself — which he clearly revels in — in the absence of being a respected actor.

The funny thing is, no matter what happens, what sort of statements are made after the fact, no one’s going to believe it either way. Phoenix could come out and say “It was all a hoax, folks! I’m an awesome actor!” Or he could say “No faking. It was a dark time. I came away with an epiphany and I’m ready to get back to choosing life.” Whatever he says, there’s always going to be some doubt.

And really, that’s the genius of “I’m Still Here.” Real or fake, hoax or breakdown, this is a movie that’s been packaged so perfectly that the line between illusion and reality is blurred to the point of being completely indistinct. It doesn’t matter how amateurish the filmmaking is or how far the subject sinks in his depravity. The marketing is what sells the film’s underlying commentary on celebrity life vs. celebrity fandom in the end, what makes it a success. We don’t know if what we’re seeing is real or not, but it doesn’t matter at all: the audience demand for this sort of spectacle is what ultimately allows it to exist.