Knowing in advance that I’m Still Here (2010) is in fact a mockumentary does little to help in making sense of Casey Affleck’s up-close and uncomfortably personal documentary. Following Joaquin Phoenix after his declaration of retirement from the acting world in order to become a fully fledged rapper, Affleck and his crew track Phoenix and his two lackeys’ movements from coast to coast in a bizarre chase that feels – frustratingly, at times – like a frantic search for meaning.
Phoenix’s own transformation, if not his entire performance, is startling. Sporting an unexpected paunch alongside his now notorious beard and shaggy mop of hair, he shambles from his LA home studio to New York and back, chain smoking and mumbling semi-philosophic non-sequitars. At one point Phoenix turns to the camera and asks Affleck whether or not flies consider their wings “strictly as a mode of transportation”. At times, Phoenix seems so completely misguided and lost in self-loathing that the I’m Still Here feels truly genuine (which explains the large number of debates regarding the film’s authenticity after its Cannes premiere and consequent theatrical release last year).
Adversely, during key moment of confrontation within the film, Phoenix’s demeanour is so theatrical its hard to see him as anything other than a consumate performer, leaving the audience to ponder just who is the real Joaquin Phoenix? The “former actor” claims in the film to have abandoned acting and turned to music in order to make something that truly reflects him as a person. If the music was part of this hoax, is it therefore possible to view the film as the real reflection of the actor? Importantly, we should remember that the lines between “real” and “fake” are not the same as the lines between “documentary” and “scripted”.
Various members of Affleck and Phoenix’s group of Hollywood buddies show up to add weight to the film makers’ initial claims of veracity. Ben Stiller and Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs endure arguments over Phoenix’s apparent resentment at not being taken seriously as a budding hip-hop star. In one of the film’s best scenes, Edward James Olmos shows up at Phoenix’s house and delivers a cryptic analogue of the artist’s trials in life. It means something, and it appears to have a big affect on Phoenix, but it’s not clear if he takes the same meaning from it that Olmos intended. Was he aware during filming that this was a stunt? Were any of them?
With I’m Still Here, Affleck appears to be offering a commentary on the culture of celebrity that exists today, but the version of Joaquin Phoenix that we are presented with is so arch and dislikable that it is often difficult to see him as a representative of anything tangible. Truly, the number of possible interpretations as to the film’s true meaning are almost endless. I’m Still Here opens and closes with home video footage of Phoenix’s childhood; so is this unkempt figure the result of a life lived in the spotlight? Clips of gossip shows, news reports and even amateur video blogs commenting on the actor’s increasingly erratic behaviour; therefore, is the name of the movie a sort of rebuke? Phoenix is, after all, “still here” and is portrayed as self-aware, repeatedly shown sitting alone at his computer surveying the rumour-mongering as media types and teenage bloggers write him off as finished.
Structurally, I’m Still Here has little in the way of a narrative thread, with Affleck instead turning this random travelogue of his brother-in-law’s adventures into neat little memorable episodes, linked as they are by extended periods of inane, paranoic chatter. The film’s closing sequence is bizarrely beautiful and seems somewhat out of place, more Terrence Malick than Jackass. Returning to his father’s home in Panama, Phoenix silently stalks the jungle, wading through a stream that gradually rises, submerging more and more of the film’s subject and star until finally the man vanishes beneath the surface. Is this Affleck’s final visual metaphor for the project? You can follow a man 24 hour hours a day, across the country and back again, but the further you follow them, the less you see. And finally, they disappear.
The unexpected beauty of the ending adds considerably more weight to the film than seen in the 90% of preceding footage, yet I may be over-crediting I’m Still Here with intelligence. There’s far more evidence to suggest this is a mindless hoax than a thoughtful rumination on celebrity culture and the limits of storytelling. This may be a fake documentary, but I think it must be easier to fake idiocy than insight.