Monday, 6 September 2010

Venice 2010: I'm Still Here

Joaquin Phoenix

Casey Affleck’s “documentary” chronicling his brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix’s retirement from acting to pursue a new career as a hip-hop musician is a perplexing beast, one that still has me scratching my head several hours after having seen it.

Going in, I was convinced all would be revealed as an elaborate ruse, a practical joke of sizeable proportions, a cunning critique and exposé of fame and celebrity culture in the 21st century. But, as the movie unfolds, your sense of what’s real, and what isn’t, and what exactly is the joke and on who is the joke being played, alters from moment to moment, scene to scene.

The movie begins with Phoenix’s proclaiming himself fed up of acting, tired of being “a puppet”, tired of his public persona as a tortured actor.

“I don’t want to play the character of Joaquin anymore,” he states. “Hate me or like me just don’t misunderstand me.” He wants to express his creativity through his music and bring “what’s inside me out”.

So far, so believable, but as Phoenix piles on the pounds, hides away behind long hair and a shaggy beard; tells his agent and publicist he’s quitting Hollywood; pursues P Diddy across America in an attempt to get him to produce his first album; “raps” in his home studio; engages in various frat house-style antics involving drugs, alcohol and setting hair alight with his buddies; orders up a pair of escorts from the internet and is filmed not only frolicking with them but using the breasts of one of them to partake of some, ahem, white powder; and verbally abuses his assistants, the joke ceases to be as funny anymore with Phoenix coming across as a self-centred, boorish, needy, deeply unpleasant individual and an obnoxious bore.

And by the time he appears on the David Letterman Show to promote his “last” movie role in Two Lovers and is virtually mute — to the host’s visible annoyance — or agrees to rap at a Miami nightclub, only to get into a fight with one member of the audience, you don’t quite know what to think any more. In fact, I’m still not sure what to make of the incident when Ben Stiller turns up at his home with the script for Greenberg to ask him to play the role of Ivan, and Phoenix slags him off to his face. Stiller’s reaction certainly looks real. (Maybe I’m being unkind and he’s a better actor than I give him credit for.) Later, Stiller shows up at the Oscars “doing a Joaquin” and wearing a beard and sunglasses.

Some moments definitely do feel staged — a disgruntled personal assistant defecating on Phoenix’s face, for instance — others less so, although the end credits claim the film to be “written and produced by Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix” — and list the names of actors in various roles, including Tim Affleck as Phoenix’s father.

That being said, if it was all one big joke — and my gut tells me it is — then we really must applaud Phoenix’s Andy Kaufman-like transformation, and his ability to stay in character for close to a year and a half. That’s what I call dedication to the cause. And, if it really is all a performance, then it’s arguably deserving of some awards attention.

At the press conference that followed this morning’s press screening, Affleck wouldn’t be drawn on the veracity of his film, and danced around the various attempts to draw him out about what was real and what was faked, so as not to spoil it for an audience, he claimed, (which is an answer in itself), and when asked directly how he would answer claims that the film was a hoax, replied: “Elliptically.” There is no hoax, he continued. “The idea of a hoax makes me think of Candid Camera.”

He said he felt the film was “a very sympathetic portrait” of Phoenix and that “I feel for him and I understand him better than I did at the beginning.”

Phoenix himself wasn’t at the press conference, but was scheduled to appear on the red carpet for the official screening later today. One journalist spotted him on a plane from London described him as beardless and thin.

What did he think of the film, asked one Italian journalist?

“I think he’s trying to embrace [it],” said Affleck, “and I hope him will support it but in what capacity is up to him.”

So, truth or fiction? I suspect the answer will only be revealed when, or if, Phoenix starts acting again. And as someone who’s long admired his work, I hope so he does.

Certainly on the evidence of this film, he’s no great shakes at hip-hop.

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