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Thursday, 16 September 2010

I'm Still Here vs Time To Go

When it comes to film, “is it real” isn’t exactly the most illuminating question to ask. On the one hand, yes, it’s real: it’s a real film that’s been shot and edited in such a way as to highlight some aspects and downplay others as far as what took place in front of the cameras goes. On the other hand- and oh look, that hand has I’m Still Here written on it, which is, uh, handy – as far as a record of real-life events goes, it (like every single other form of recorded media) is going to leave some wriggle room as far as the whole “reality” question goes.

So maybe I’m Still Here is a big fat hoax, or maybe it’s a honest record of the year Joaquin Phoenix went nutty: unless you’re a massive fan of Mr Phoenix and really care deeply about his personal life, it’s not the most interesting thing about this only intermittently interesting film.

What is interesting about it to me is that it’s on some level a comedy of disintegration: the film gets laughs as Phoenix falls apart (basically, he gives up his acting career to be a hip-hop artist, a career for which he has no talent. He also gets fat, takes drugs, gropes hookers, makes a dick of himself constantly, and has pretty much the most realistic vomiting scene in the history of cinema. Seriously, if nothing else in this film is real, him throwing up was). It’s not really a genre the Americans have done a lot of, being a little dark for mainstream tastes, but in the UK it’s been fairly common over the last decade or so to see a moderately loved sitcom character – Alan Partridge, Dan Ashcroft on Nathan Barley – go off the rails to some extent.

The most relevant example that came to mind while watching I’m Still Here, mostly because it too involved a hoax, was the then media prankster (and now much-lauded director of suicide bomber comedy Four Lions) Chris Morris and his “Geefe” columns for The Observer in 1999.

Appearing as the work of “Richard Geefe” and under the heading Second Class Male, they started out as a relatively typical weekend paper personality column, only to fairly quickly take a bad turn as Geefe’s life rapidly fell apart. Seemingly on the brink of despair at the end of week 6 he didn’t return for week 7 – and when he did come back (under the new title Time To Go which clearly makes it a decade-too-soon sequel to I'm Still Here) it was with a confession: he’d tried to kill himself, it hadn’t worked, and the newspaper was paying him a huge sum to keep writing about the perils of suicide… just so long as he tried again (and succeeded) in six months time. Don’t look at me like that, they’re hilarious. See for yourself.

Phoenix doesn’t try to kill himself in I’m Still Here – just his career. But both the Geefe columns and I’m Still here get their energy in part from the question “is it real?” Seeing a wanker throw away everything isn’t really all that interesting – it needs the spark that comes from wondering if it’s really happening to keep our attention. In Morris’ case, it helps that the columns are funny and that he has some solid points to make: one of the running jokes is how Geefe’s personal problems are exploited by his editor and the media who refuse to offer him any useful help. In contrast, in I’m Still Here director (and Phoenix’s brother-in-law) Casey Affleck slowly withdraws from any real on-camera presence in the film, presumably to defuse the obvious question of why someone isn’t trying harder to stop Phoenix from acting like a tool.

On thing they do both have in common is a distain for the audience. Well, the section of the audience gullible enough or eager enough to believe what they’re seeing: in Geefe’s case, do we really believe a major UK newspaper would allow a journalist to commit slow-motion suicide in its pages? Thousands did believe: other columnists wrote about it in disgust.

In the case of I’m Still Here, why do we care about “Joaquin Phoenix”, who almost none of us know in any real sense, any more than we would any other character played by the same actor? The only reason to care – because his character is barely sketched out in the film, which is also the point (if the end product was slicker, it’d be less convincing as a “real” document) – is because we’re wondering “is it real?”. For all JP’s bad behaviour on screen, we’ve all seen actors do far worse in movies: it’s only shocking if we really believe it’s the “real” Phoenix up there.

What’s at stake here anyway? It’s not like this film’s going to trash his rep as a brooding, serious artist: either he really did go off the rails because he needed to fully express himself – he’s a serious artist, man! – or he spent a year acting like a nutcase for a movie – again, kind sorta the type of thing a serious artist would do. In contrast, Billy Crudup – to pick a name at random – didn’t seem to go mental for a year, and no-one’s talking anywhere near as much about whatever the hell he’s currently up to. Any publicity is meant to be good publicity.

The only place where going off the rails like this would seriously damage his rep is in the section of the media devoted to celebrity and their various sufferings. That’s where the contempt comes in: Phoenix clearly doesn’t care what fans of “him” (rather than of his work) think. If they’re sucked in by this, they deserve to be. If they think less of him because of this, who needs them anyway?

In the end, Geefe wins out in this all-in-my-head pitched battle simply because – to my eyes at least - it’s funnier. Though to be fair, Sean “Puffy” Combs is hilarious in I’m Still Here. After this and his work in Get Him to the Greek, he’s the breakout comedy star of 2010. When he's on screen, at least the laughs are real.

Anthony Morris

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