On October 27, 2008, Joaquin Phoenix, an award winning and Oscar-nominated actor, announced his retirement. He did not call a press conference, or announce his decision through his publicist. Joaquin simply told a reporter from the television show Extra, on a red carpet for a charity event he was involved in, that his as yet to be released film Two Lovers would be his final performance. As shocking as the announcement was to everyone in Hollywood and fan’s alike, what would become even more shocking was his future plan. Joaquin Phoenix had decided he wanted to pursue a career in music. After being hailed for his performance in Walk the Line as Johnny Cash the possibility for success seemed likely. Many film stars have successfully branched off into music, and vice versa. But he did not want to venture into that genre of music; Joaquin wanted to be a hip-hop artist. This choice, instead of being supported by the media, was seen as a huge joke. The months that followed were full of heckling, bad jokes, and an all out media attack on the once highly regarded star. Adding fuel to the fire was the intent to document his new path in a documentary. I’m Still Here (Casey Affleck 2010) begins with the announcement of his retirement and then follows him as he tries to reinvent himself as a hip-hop artist.
The film opens with video footage of a boy, in the year 1981 in Panama, being filmed as he jumps into a waterfall’s pool. The camera is focused only on the boy as he stands atop the rocks, delaying the inevitable decent into the pool below. This is Joaquin Phoenix as a child, before stardom struck, but still on-camera. Cut to various archived videos of Joaquin in Hollywood being interviewed, receiving awards, and playing the part of media darling. Once again, in the spotlight of the camera. Immediately we know this film is more than just the chronicling of a movie star trying to break into the music business. It is also about the man behind the image. After the archived footage has passed we meet the Joaquin Phoenix who we will follow through the documentary. One of his first comments, when trying to explain why this film is being made, is “I don’t want to play the character Joaquin anymore”. He continues to remark how his life has been a fraud up until this point and by making the documentary he will be able to represent his true self.
Taking a good look at Joaquin Phoenix at this point, and to be completely blunt, you can only think he has suffered some sort of mental break and emotional breakdown. His appearance alone is upsetting as he has gained a considerable amount of weight, has a beard that is overgrown and mangy, his hair is a knotted mess that may or may not have been washed in the past month, and even his clothing are in tatters. He smokes far too many cigarettes, partakes in various recreational drugs, drinks large amounts of alcohol, enjoys the occasional hooker or groupie and looks like he has not had a decent nights rest in years. His attitude is sometimes positive and carefree but in a moment may turn to angry, paranoid, or loopy. Phoenix is a mess, and taking him serious when he is in this condition is a difficult task. Then again, we do not know the real Joaquin Phoenix, as he made quite clear in the beginning. We only know what the machine that is Hollywood has shown us over the years, or “the character Joaquin”. So if this is the real Joaquin Phoenix you are in for a shocking treat as the film unfolds because there is absolutely zero censorship. It is a raw portrait of a man dealing with personal crisis while being scrutinized everywhere he turns. We meet his close friends who are also his employees. We witness his mood swings, enjoy his humor, listen to his philosophical musings, but never grow to actually like him personally. Although you do emphasize with him by the end and are moved on occasion by his seemingly honest desire to find happiness. Joaquin is motivated, from start to finish, to make his career in music a success. The reason for the unsuccessful outcome, based on what we see in the documentary, can be attributed to a variety of things. It could be his lack of talent (depending on your taste in music I suppose), the media’s negativity towards his new career path, his own belief that it would be easy based on his prior successes, or even his own ego getting the better of him. The conjectures are endless in this case and no clear answer is given.
The greatest internal moments shown on screen happen where fame is considered. He wants to walk away from the false world he has been living in only to move into another realm of false reality, the music business. He sees music as a means of true self expression. That is correct, in a sense, if you avoid the business of it all. If this is what he wants then why does he instantly gravitate towards the most high profile music producer, Sean Combs? Good question, difficult to answer. Throughout the film Phoenix cannot let go of his star status. He has problems handling the negative media attention and his having to make concessions with his means of travel/lifestyle and such because his circumstances have changed. He is no longer wanted and desired by all. We see the breakdown of his star status unfold. With that comes an internal struggle as to who he is without the fame. He wants to be free but at the same time cannot come to a reconciliation. When he makes his debut open-mic performance at a bar in Venice, California, the crowd is not cheering him on. He remarks afterwards that all they can see is “Joaquin Phoneix” and therefore are not paying attention to the lyrics and meaning behind them. That may be true, but he does not try and change the media perception or invite them into his new world. He ignores the bad press, acts awkward during his final press junkets for Two Lovers and only feeds their capable hands with more and more material with every misstep he makes. The press ends up becoming his absolute worse nightmare as things deteriorate before his eyes and he himself must battle the loss of identity that came with his choice. Phoenix appears to believe he knows himself and in order to save who he is he must abandon his film career. What we see happen is the exact opposite. Phoenix unravels without his fame, and the person we believed to exist behind the character of Joaquin Phoenix does not in fact appear to exist. He is only a man burdened by his past and incapable of securing his future. The end finds him back where he began as a child; on-camera in a pool of water, but his eyes hidden from view. Joaquin Phoenix has become a broken man and the film does not try and hide this fact from the viewer. Unable to return to acting, unwanted in the music business, Phoenix is left with nothing by film’s end except himself. It seems then that by losing absolutely everything he gained the one thing he was living without, reality.
Real or Fake?
If you are reading this review you must be curious as to whether the film is in fact a documentary or if it is a mockumentary. In other words, reality or fictional reality; two things that are very hard to tell the difference between in today’s “reality” obsessed culture. Well, you will receive no answer from me or even an attempt to answer the question. I overheard a fellow critic after the screening turn to her companion and say, “I would really like to know if this was real”. I for one, should I run into Joaquin Phoenix or Casey Affleck one day, have no desire to know if it was indeed “real” or one big made-up social commentary on fame, the media, self and perception. If they were to tell me it would ruin the experience. I like not knowing the intentions, if any, or if everyone is being played for a fool by believing it is real. What I do know is both Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix are credited as the writer’s of the film. Does this mean anything? Not really. Every documentary has a writer as well as reality program or mockumentary. There is the suspiciously good sound and camera set-ups throughout the film. Making one believe it is staged as the quality is just too good and the camera in just the right place at the right time to get the most clear shot possible when dramatic instances occur. It makes for great footage and a very easy film to cut as the linear progression of the narrative is incredibly smooth. Getting lost in where it is going or what is happening never occurs. It definitely plays more like a narrative feature than a documentary. Then of course are the random cameo’s from other famous people. Their conversations with Phoenix do not come across as completely genuine. Great documenting or a great script? Hmmmm….watching the movie only seems to bring up more questions than existed before.
The other thing everyone is wondering…
The biggest question is the most obvious: Why would a successful young actor walk away from the fame, fortune, perks, and success? I have heard time and time again how we, the non-celebrities of the world, should not feel bad for celebrities. They have chosen the life, knowing full well all of the negative aspects that come along with it, and so they should knowingly accept all of it without complaint. In our media obsessed culture, where you can any time of day go to the internet, turn on the television, listen to the radio, even look at the newest update on your favorite phone application, and instantly be bombarded with all of the newest gossip about someone you do not know, yet believe to know because of all the information afforded to you via the media, the definition of privacy evolves continually. Having made this choice early on in his life Joaquin Phoenix barely knew any other lifestyle. Can we fault him if he actually did want to simply walk away from it all? No. The media can be cruel. They have no limits on what can be reported and should not be for the sake of privacy, or personal feelings. Phoenix bashes the life of an actor yet when he realizes he cannot return to that world, after he is attacked for the hoax rumor surrounding the documentary, it destroys him. Self perception just may be the most difficult thing to hold on to in a media obsessed culture such as ours. When you are constantly being watched when can you honestly separate the image from the individual? Whether this film is real or fake should not matter at this point nor should anyone ask why Joaquin did it ever again. What does matter is what it says about the world we are living in without complaint but mere compliance.
A line I cannot seem to forget occurs very early in the film but held much meaning for the events that unfolded: “Is the dream unattainable, or did you have the wrong dream” – Joaquin Phoenix. Regular people make decisions and choices everyday. Some of them work out and others do not. They simply move on with their lives, returning to what they did before or finding something else to fulfill their time. It is an acceptable part of life. So then, the idea that Joaquin Phoenix could return to Hollywood and resume his career is a nice thought. It is unfortunate then that the notion seems impossible as Joaquin Phoenix is not a “normal” person, but a celebrity. The rules are different. The film makes a point at the end to show other celebrities mistakes, and the quick forgiveness by the media and fans. The title then appears to be a plea to everyone to remember the character of Joaquin Phoenix. Whether it is so he can be accepted back into the Hollywood machine we cannot know. But whether it is to remember him as he was, or how he is now in all his rawness, it is certain that with this film Joaquin Phoenix will not soon be forgotten.
FilmFracture Production Rating: 3 out of 4 clocks
For more information on the film refer to its website here.