Reality, Celebrity Culture, and Inner Light in “I’m Still Here”


If you are here to read a strict review of the “Joaquin Phoenix documentary” you’ll have to go somewhere else.  The film is operating on levels reminiscent of  The Brothers Bloom because you have no idea how to differentiate between reality and performance, and are left bereft of any concrete narrative to critique.

However, if you’re here searching for thoughts about the film, step right into my office.

My initial impression was that Phoenix was proclaiming his self-importance with the title I’m Still Here, a defiant cry to some crowd that, “You can’t hold me!  I’m still here (bitches)!”  This was supplanted by an interpretation more along lines of, “Uh…why are you talking about me like that?  I’m still here.”  At the film’s heart are the ways Phoenix sets himself up for the type of criticism he receives, and how much is fueled by celebrity culture.

First and foremost, Phoenix appears to have serious issues.  I mean this not at all in a judgmental fashion, just as an interpretation of what appears on-screen.  Phoenix performs a giddy jig at the prospect of a line of coke and two prostitutes; the way he speaks suggests one too many shots of rum; and the way he reacts to other people, in word and deed, does not suggest a sound mind.  Silence follows him at the film’s end, but the rest of the time we see him as a crazed hobo crying, yelling, and consuming various substances.

Since the film’s release there’s been debate over whether the whole film, and Phoenix’s behavior, are an elaborate performance.  As recently as a few days ago, Casey Affleck (the film’s director and brother-in-law to Phoenix) stated that the film is a hoax.  However, even this “admission” seems suspect given what we see in the film. ( Not to mention, the easiest way to soften the vitriolic reaction to the film’s release would be to retroactively call it a complete hoax). Since the entire film consists of Phoenix behaving in bizarre ways, Affleck could have taken extreme liberties in editing to showcase Phoenix only when he was behaving like a nut – yet that still does not erase the possibility that Phoenix could have mental health problems and substance abuse issues; he could just be acting like himself or an extreme version of himself.  It also does not, as the guys over at the /Filmcast have pointed out, change the fact that SPOILER-ISH someone took a shit on his face and people laughed at his (fake?) aspirations to become a rap star.SPOILER OVER. When Christian Bale portrayed Alfred Borden in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, a magician who lives his act, who knew someone would try this social experiment for real?  If one were to state I’m Still Here as pure Fake, you have to marvel at Phoenix’s boldness to live a destroyed life.

The events portrayed actually took place, so ultimately whether they are staged or not does not alter how others have perceived Phoenix during the last year and a half.  In the process of the film’s unfolding, no matter who wants to chime in, reality and performance become an object not even its creators are able to split.

There’s a memorable scene in which Edward James Olmos visits Joaquin, and toward the end of the exchange he says, “When you’re in the spotlight, you don’t have a chance to see the inner light.”  The anxiety of being mis-perceived and ridiculed for certain aspirations puts both the celebrity culture and our own frailties at the forefront.  Ours is a culture in which the famous are treated (on and off the screen) as puppets for our amusement.  The drug dramas of the starlet-of-the-week captivate audiences just as much as their fictional performances (remember “The Lottery” themed episode of South Park?).  All too quickly, audiences forget that there’s an actual human being they are mocking, critiquing, dissing, slamming, etc.  (For example, Phoenix’s physical change prompts an ugly reaction from culture critics and those within the celebrity fish bowl, showcasing their own lack of compassion and humanity).

Jay Smooth over at illdoctrine.com comments on various areas of U.S. culture and the frequency with which another new media frenzy takes place around a celebrity. He goes out of his way to remind us that the person’s drama, which we are avidly consuming, is affecting a human being we should show love and respect:

The sentiment Smooth expresses in regard to Amy Winehouse is the same thing I felt when watching I’m Still Here.  Phoenix appears to have serious issues and instead of reveling in his misery and enacting some perverted revenge fantasy where the unwashed masses of non-famous ilk slurp up the misery of celebrities as some sort of existential sustenance (“at least I don’t have problems like that!”), we need to remember the common connectedness of our humanity and check ourselves before we sell our souls.

When all is said and done, regardless of the fake or real elements of the film, it is able to tap into our own struggles to define ourselves, and reminds us of the humanity of even those in power. They seem so far removed from us, atop a mountain of fame and notoriety, but our barbed arrows fly far and can hit their mark.  Even further, the film asks us to evaluate our own performances in our daily lives.  Immediately following my viewing of the film, I prepared for an event by donning a button up shirt and carrying business cards.  In the stark light of I’m Still Here I had to ask myself, “Why am I doing this?  Is this what I want to do or is this some role I’ve benignly accepted?  Maybe I should change back into shorts and a t-shirt….”

Friend and co-hort Ben Creech over at Sic Semper Pellicula says, “Knowing now that it was indeed a hoax, doesn’t change the fact that we told him that he had the wrong dreams” (laughing at him for dreaming to be a rap star).  If one calls this a complete hoax, all that is left is the nastiness expressed by cultural commentatorsthe analysis of which is worth the cost of admission alone. I’m Still Here leaves viewers with a lot to discuss and, as time goes on, will inspire increasing appreciation as you carry the film into your own experiences.  We all struggle to present ourselves as we truly are, trying to leave people without misleading perceptions.  The hard part is identifying who we really are – and that requires time in The Quiet (as I call it), a meditation on the “inner light.”  May Mr. Phoenix’s journey be a lesson to us all, reminding us how vitally important it is to know thyself.

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5 responses to “Reality, Celebrity Culture, and Inner Light in “I’m Still Here”

  1. Dear Remington:
    Dale here.
    Regarding “I’m Still Here,” I have not yet viewed it. So, my comments are those of a “non-film-viewer.”
    Still, I would like to mention conformity/social role(s), possible personal attacks/schadenfreude, and ask, “Where is the harm?”
    First, Conformity/Social Role(s): I have been pondering whether Phoenix has “stepped out” of his former role as an actor (Per the “point-of-view” of at least some others).
    While a person whom can sing may also be able to credibly act, merely because a person is a great singer does not automatically “prove/signify” that she/he also must be able to act well. (Known as “the cross-over tendency,” in Psychology: John Doe is a superb “x.” So, he MUST ALSO be a superb “y” or “z”.)
    While there may be some former singers that went on to act WELL, I am not aware of any NOTEWORTHY singers that segued to acting and EXCELED.
    ( I do not believe that “Madonna” can actually act-She is a great singer/performance artist. Her singing in Evita was, to me, just great. However, having seen most of her films, i’m very sorry, Ms. Ciccone, but you cannot act NOTABLY/WELL.)
    Possible Personal Attacks/Schadenfreude(?):
    Perhaps some dislike/disapprove/judge Mr. Phoenix for his….
    Personal Appearance(?) (Actor Jim Carrey appeared very similarly at an awards event in the past-Do not believe Carrey was responded to in same manner as Phoenix was for this.
    Actor-to-Rap Artist(?): Perhaps some have a perception that Phoenix, the actor, should not attempt Rap. Why? Perhaps it depends on whom are asked this.
    Personal Dislike(s)(?): Acting ability of Phoenix(?) I saw him in “Gladiator” and “Signs,” and I thought he did very well in both films (I am just a layman).
    Schadenfreude (?) Personally, in my opinion, I strongly believe that one factor over this furor is Possible Schadenfreude or Actual Schadenfreude occurring to Mr. Phoenix (Schadenfreude-Someone revelling in the misfortunes and problems of another/others.)
    It seems that Phoenix’s Character acts unusually/eccentrically at times in the film (from the few comments I have heard about film.) While I can understand some feeling uneasy or uncomfortable about viewing/experiencing possibly bizarre or erratic behavior, I must next ask….
    “Where is the Harm?”– I personally am not aware of any actions of Phoenix’s character truly/actually harming anyone. I have not heard ANY CONCRETE EXAMPLES of HOW Phoenix’s Character does damage to any other person.
    IF ‘damage’ was done in the film, it WAS NOT ACTUAL damage.
    IF this group of people do not like Phoenix as an actor, fine. However, If another group does not like the PERSONA of Phoenix, or, a third group does not like a former actor attempting to debut as a Rap Artist, then the last two groups may very well have issues innately centered in themselves.
    I object to the views of the last two ‘groups.’
    Phoenix/Phoenix’s character (aka Persona), and the staged or actual desire to go into Rap Music should not, in my opinion, be “Pre-Empted” (Cut Phoenix down before he has an actual chance/opportunity to possibly succede) by a possible numerical small group of persons, although they may be very vocal in their vitriol and vociferousness.
    To sum-up, I see no positive reason to not give Phoenix/Phoenix’s Character (aka Persona) a chance to excel.
    Remington, thank you for doing this review. i enjoyed it.
    Dale.

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