I’m Still Here- A failed social experiment

October 25, 2010

The 2010 documentary, I’m Still Here, showcases Academy Award nominated actor, Joaquin Phoenix in a journey of transformation between both professional careers and life choices. With his directorial debut, Casey Affleck shows us a brief history of Phoenix’s life, from childhood to stardom, which begins the film in the present state of celebrity life. The premise of this film seems simple however; there have been mass amounts of controversy surrounding Affleck, Phoenix, and their intentions.

I’m Still Here, is shrewd in mystery as Casey Affleck follows his brother-in-law, Joaquin Phoenix through the course of his public mental break down. The film begins the journey as Phoenix announces he wants to expand artistically into the world of hip-hop by resigning his role as a mainstream actor. The rest of the film takes us on the path of mental instability, indulgence, drug addiction, and failure as Phoenix is mocked by the entire nation for his deliberate actions. It finally climaxes to a ending point where Phoenix travels back home to visit his father and lets out a release as he questions his existence. The film had much speculation surrounding its intentions and finally, it was revealed that I’m Still Here was a hoax that went on for over a year. It examines our cultures obsession with fame from the end of the actual celebrity. Unfortunately, the film instantaneously received negative reviews after its premier, which prompted Affleck to reveal that the pretense of the movie was a hoax.

Many critics had differing opinions over I’m Still Here, but more importantly, did the viewers get it? Were the intended underlying messages received by its audience in a way that transcended past the box office? I’m Still Here attempted to show the relationship between celebrity and society in a method that has yet to be done. It raises questions over our obsessions with mainstream popular culture and what the public as a whole deems right or wrong. Don’t get me wrong I love Joaquin Phoenix, but though the concept is interesting, the film in its entirety has many conflicts with its claimed purpose- which range from the actual agent used (Joaquin Phoenix) trying to convey such a concept, the method of filming, to the delivery of the movie as a hoax to the public. These elements are the reason why I’m Still Here, was not successfully receptive by its audience.

Although, Joaquin was the one who received the attention and burdened the initial heat, Casey Affleck is the other important figure in this film. The movie serves as a medium for Affleck to speak towards the public and the final product that we see is ultimately Affleck’s thoughts and direction. Phoenix had an extremely successful year with two Oscar nominations under his belt. The film also took place in the midst of Phoenix’s latest movie premier, Two Lovers.  It is crucial that Affleck set the film at the height of Phoenix’s career to obtain the maximum reaction that the film needed. The audience whom received the film were those who are critics, but most importantly, they were interested and skeptical in the story. The audience in this context had proven to fall under a realm of curiosity pertaining to celebrity culture.

Charles Davis, defines a documentary film is one that is traditionally considered

“to be a factual, non-fictional genre that seek to record, reveal, preserve, persuade, promote, analyze, question, or express a viewpoint.”

Through this standard belief that documentaries hold a level of truth behind them, audiences have preconceived notions that what they watch will be sincere. A mockumentary, on the other hand, is a film that is shot and narrated in the same fashion as a factual documentary. However, a mockumentary is fictional and typically serves the purpose of entertainment and parody. Now, the term hoax is one of the reasons why I’m Still Here has failed in audience acceptance.

According to Merriam-Webster, a hoax by definition is “to trick into believing or accepting as genuine something false and often pretentious.”

When involved in a hoax, we are convinced about something, then we find out the falsity of it- thus swindling our emotions from confusion to sometimes anger. Overall, we as humans do not like to be fooled, and we feel a sense of deception when this does occur. By watching I’m Still Here, our psyche was played upon, but for what?

When looking closer at the various modes of persuasion, logos had a negative appeal, which fostered publicity for Phoenix and the film. The public’s opinion of him was mostly shock at first, but then it dwindled down into either acceptance of his insane behavior or an overall consensus of unbelievably. After a certain point, the general public simply did not care if Joaquin Phoenix was crazy or if Casey Affleck was trying to prove some avant-guard point, they just didn’t want to hear about it anymore unless it was out of mockery.

Ethos was especially played upon in the film through Phoenix’s unruly behavior. One of the most talked about scenes involves Joaquin belligerently snorting lines of cocaine off of the bare breast of hired prostitutes. For a documentary that was supposed to be real, this scene automatically outraged its audience who viewed Phoenix as a misogynistic idiot. Even when the film was announced as staged, the public still questioned if certain parts of the film, like the scene stated, had any truth behind them. This questioned Phoenix as a person and makes us wonder how far from aggressive jerks the two really are- especially since Affleck was accused of a sexual harassment charges by two different women during the filming of I’m Still Here.

TMZ reported: “Magdalena Gorka — filed a $2.25 million lawsuit in L.A. County Superior Court recently, claiming Affleck engaged in a pattern of harassing behavior during production … and then refused to pay her for work as a cinematographer when she left the project.”

Finally, pathos was eventually drawn upon in the emotional ties involved with Phoenix’s character. Throughout the film, we get a sense of ignorance and self-pity from Phoenix, however by the end; one cannot help but feel sympathy for his character. Phoenix incorporates various elements of tragedy, alienation, and misunderstanding that is accompanied by the life of the celebrity. However, when juxtaposed with the hoax, pathos then turns into irony because when the film stops rolling and the audience realizes that Phoenix was simply acting, he is still living a life that is constantly in the public eye; therefore, this element of pathos will always be evident.

The delivery of Phoenix’s performance is so convincing that it is the only thing about I’m Still Here that people can rave about. The combination of his nonverbal gestures adds so much to the development of the person that we believe Joaquin has become. Along with his language and speech, Phoenix’s appearance also starts degenerating as he develops long, unkempt hair and an ever-growing waistline. Weight and hygiene changes add to his portrayal of not caring about his prior celebrity status. One scene that stands out in I’m Still Here is during one of Joaquin’s final rap performances in Florida, where he jumps off stage and starts a fist fight with a taunting spectator. The movement of the fight seems so realistic that like the prostitutes previously stated, many wondered if this too was staged for the film. There is no doubt that Joaquin Phoenix puts on a great performance in the context of the film. However, there is question to how convincing the entire film was as a whole.

So ultimately, the performance given by Joaquin Phoenix in I’m Still Here is a convincingly strong portrayal of a celebrity figure who has struggled with fame and success. It’s the classic tragic tale of isolation in the public eye and the detrimental effects of having the world at your finger tips. But what this experimental documentary failed in achieving is bringing the intended message to its audience. In fact, by the end of the film the intended message is hard to decipher. Phoenix claimed that the reason he wanted to quit acting was to break out from a commercial confine of standard filmmaking and that a rap career would allow for his artistic expression. However in the film, this is hard to fully believe his act. Phoenix’s appearance and demeanor support his un-motivational lyrics that question his commitment to the world of hip-hop. But that is only the first flaw in believing the film, which was needed to achieve any sort of purpose. Throughout the course of his mental breakdown, there was also public speculation of his actions being a hoax. Because this rumor was already widely criticized, the element of shock was missing from Affleck’s final revelation about his film. Unlike other hoaxes and mockumentaries, there is a level of coherence missing from the film that does not let the satirical elements shine through.

I’m Still Here, sets forth the way too obvious point that the public has a fascination with the celebrity, but does not offer much more than the already known. There seems to be no real justification for the appalling behavior of Phoenix in the film, even if it is method acting. The entire process has seemed to miss the point of transcending to bigger issues in media obsession, that we question what the real motivation behind the gesture was. At the end of the day, the audience feels like the victim to a failed social experiment that served no real purpose and offered nothing more than a glimpse into an empty celebrity existence.

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