BY STEVE VOLK Joaquin Phoenix’s appearance on Letterman tonight will bring his strange two-year odyssey full circle—the culmination of a trip no one seems to have enjoyed overly much, except maybe Phoenix himself. Phoenix has kept everyone guessing since fall 2008, when he announced he was leaving acting behind to pursue a full-time career as a rapper.
The notion that he might pursue a new vocation in rap was dismissed outright, before anyone heard him spit a syllable. But it was his infamous 2009 appearance on Letterman that proved to be a tipping point, setting the tone for his two-year, self-directed internship as a hip-hop stumblebum. By now we all know the drill, having seen it on YouTube to the tune of a few million hits. Mumble, mumble. Moses beard. Wh-at? Why, the little shit even affixed his chewing gum to the bottom of Letterman’s desk, drawing a barely suppressed look of disgust from the Midwestern chat-show host. Phoenix was a mess. But the funny part is that, well, so many people thought it was funny. After all, if Phoenix had really suffered some kind of nervous breakdown, what does it say about us if our first response is to post the nasty bits online and forward the link to our best friends?
Well, the truth will out. But in this case the truth was known only by a select few, including Phoenix. And the truth is that one of America’s finest actors was in fact making a movie the whole time, Letterman was cast in a crucial supporting role, thousands of giggling strangers turned up as extras and few seem particularly ready for this close-up. This is, theoretically, a review of Phoenix’s new documentary, I’m Still Here. But before I really even get there, I’d like to plant my flag right out here where everyone can see it. Though the scenes feature Phoenix as an actor, it’s hard for me to think of this film as fiction and affix the mockumentary label to it. And in that spirit, I don’t much care what Phoenix has to say for himself tonight—whether he seeks to try and get everyone on his side and laughing with him, or chooses to go on flipping a righteous bird to all those who might oppose him. Instead, I’m choosing to stick my middle finger up high on his behalf, where everyone can see it.
I can’t exactly call I’m Still Here “entertaining.” And in a filmic sense, I’m not sure it really succeeds as a documentary or mockumentary. The cliché would be to refer to it as “biting” social commentary. But I’m Still Here doesn’t bite so much as hack, stab, bludgeon, maim, punch, shit on (literally), and depants its intended targets. Sorting out just how many targets Phoenix aims at—and hits—may take years to sort out. I’ll just focus on one—and it’s a doozy: Us.
I’m Still Here begins with a film of Phoenix (evidently) as a child, preparing to dive into a pool of water as his father watches. As metaphor, it’s crippling. Dad is introducing his son to the world as it really is—a short hop into dirty water where, kid, you will sink or swim. And in the end only you can save your life. The rest of the movie makes the point: Phoenix announces he’s leaving behind a largely celebrated acting career, for an unlikely career as a rapper and the world reacts by… laughing. In scenes with publicists and hangers-on, no one pulls him aside to see what’s on his mind. (Maybe we’ll get some clarity from tonight’s interview on how many people were in on his act, or how many people tried to help him behind the scenes.) And as he seemingly spirals into a horrifying abyss of weight gain, drug abuse, mumbly interviews and frighteningly bad rap performances the larger world reacts by… laughing harder. And louder.
To all outside appearances Phoenix appears bent on self-destruction and exhibits all the signs of a blooming mental illness. So.Yeah. Schizophrenia. Depression. That’s funny stuff these days, I guess, in a shameless reality show world— funny, that is, when it’s all happening to someone else. I know, I know. We all have an out. As the film itself documents, rumors abounded that the whole thing was a ruse—Phoenix having us all on, hoaxing the world. But by the time the movie reaches its emotional nadir, with Phoenix turning up for a torturous one-song rap performance in Miami, which ends in a fistfight and lots of vomit, it’s also apparent that the larger world doesn’t much care if Phoenix is really an actor giving a performance or a man mashing the self-destruct button hard and repeatedly. In that last big scene, in Miami, the camera, helmed by director Casey Affleck, captures a stunning view of Phoenix looking out over a sea of cell phone and flip-cameras, of people grinning ear to ear at the pleasure of seeing a once-celebrated actor burst into flame and make a stunning ass of himself. In fact, many audience members even sport fake bushy beards—Joaquin Phoenix costumes, the better, I guess, to celebrate another human being’s public dissolution.
If I’m Still Here succeeds on any level it’s in putting our capacity to celebrate another man’s misery on such rich display. The beauty of I’m Still Here is that it doesn’t strike only this one sad note. As human beings, it seems, we are also born with a great capacity to love one another—to watch as people dive into the pool alone, and to root like hell for them to make it back to the surface. In this film, in fact, actor Edward James Olmos and rap producer P. Diddy stick out for their simple decency—for being among the few people in the film who appear interested in either helping Phoenix or not doing any more damage to him. Near the end, when Phoenix pukes his guts out, one of the bodyguards who hustled him off-stage appears to reach into the camera frame and move his tie out of the rain comprised of his half-digested dinner—a simple, intimate gesture in which a seeming stranger does his best to help Phoenix maintain a little dignity.
But those few examples aside, I’m Still Here most dramatically captures our over-developed “skill” for rubber necking—for savoring the crack-up of another. I doubt it occurred to many in that Miami crowd that they were the ones being dissected and judged. But now that Affleck has admitted the entire film is, in fact, a hoax, we can now safely say that is precisely what was happening. Phoenix spent two years in the wilderness, pulling off an Andy Kaufman-esque piece of performance art, a bloated Man on the Moon crippled on the Sunset Boulevard of Broken Dreams; and Affleck filmed all the people who showed up to gawk and hoot at the loser; to see someone who so recently ranked somewhere above them on the social ladder—as an Oscar-nominated actor—and had now suddenly slid to some dark rung well beneath the own.
I don’t expect people to like I’m Still Here. I won’t even be surprised if people continue to look askance at Phoenix for many years, if not the rest of whatever’s left of his career. I have even less optimism that many people will acknowledge what Phoenix’s movie says about humanity, and our incredible ability to, well, suck. Hey, why bother accepting Phoenix’s diagnosis of the human condition when we can all just go on laughing at him? But I hope we don’t let ourselves off that easily. Because in the end, I think, Phoenix cast himself as a man in need of assistance; and what his film showed was how few people emerged offering anything of the kind.
The good news is that we can all choose to do better tomorrow.
The question is whether or not we will. An actor revealed all that, and all it took him was two years—and his own reputation.
Me? I’ll be disappointed if David Letterman doesn’t conclude his interview with Joaquin Phoenix tonight by saying, simply “Congratulations.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Steve Volk has been writing in Philadelphia for the last eight years, first for Philadelphia Weekly and now for Philadelphia magazine. His first book, tentatively titled Fringe-ology, is due out from Harper Collins in summer 2011 and deals, in great part, with the capacity we all hold to behave like complete and total shitheels.