23 September 2010
It's difficult to say if I'd have viewed this the same way if I'd seen it before Casey Affleck admitted it was all fiction. Not to brag (is this even brag-worthy?) but I never doubted for a second if it was real or not. The moment Joaquin Phoenix started showing up in public looking like the lead singer from the Eels with Casey Affleck smirkingly chasing him with a camera, it seemed like a self-indulgent film project being shot in public. How could it be anything else? And while it turns out that self-indulgence is naturally one of the main themes here, an even bigger one is complacency and voyeurism. "JP" turns in on himself and disappears into his own navel, and we loyally follow him in.
It's a sneaky film about celebrity culture. About the boundlessness and ennui of being a celebrity and the cold excitement of vultures who surround celebrities. At no point in the story does anybody ever once say, "Hey, dude, I think you're making a mistake," let alone, "Hey man, are you all right?" Not his assistants, not his friends, not other actors and celebrities, not the media who eagerly report on his seeming descent into madness, and not the fans or internet public who relish the chance to tear him apart. One of the most telling scenes is when he finally gets up to rap in a club in Miami. The experience is fascinating in an outsider-art way, but the rapping is obviously sloppy, and his performance seems to come through a drug haze. He's angry, slurring, mumbling lyrics about how hard it is to have everything. Most of the audience laughs or stands in shock -- but almost everybody has a cellphone or point-and-shoot camera trained on him. Then Joaquin loses it to a heckler, leaps off stage and gets in a fight with him. This isn't staged (it may be planned, but it's diving into a live crowd), and as the two brawl and beefy security dudes sweep in to stop the ordeal, the entire crowd turns to the fight, cameras still pointed at the action. It's a celebrity beating someone up, a would-be-rapper totally out of control, but the tone of the audience is exactly the same as before. Now the action's over here instead of over there. They still have "oh my god" smiles on their faces, thrilled to be capturing this. These people are not actors. There's only one (known) actor in the room here, but the telling performance comes from everyone around him, caught in the undertow.
The only reason I wonder if my experience would change if it were still claiming veracity is because a good deal of watching I'm Still Here gets devoted to an unconscious guessing game of who's in on it and who's being fooled. I guess that's part of the point: with celebrity culture you never know who takes you at your word and who just glad-hands you and plays the yes-man -- but I found that aspect of watching and wondering a little exhausting.
The editing and photography was occasionally bland or workmanlike (after all, it's "cinema verité") but was at least as often surprising and evocative. The closing moments -- the entire end sequence of traveling to Hawaii (?) to see his father -- was beautiful and telling. Overall I went in with low expectations and came out thoughtful and moved, despite the raucous Borat-style antics throughout. Which I guess is as good a mark of success as any.
Seen at the Hollywood Theater.