In M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, Joaquin Phoenix and Mel Gibson play brothers Merrill and Rev. Graham Hess. Early in the film, when an alien intruder appears at their home, Merrill convinces Graham that they should run around the farm house, cursing and threatening the intruder. The Reverend argues that this isn’t his natural demeanor, and Merrill explains that the plan is only an act intended to get the intruder’s notice and scare him away. And so they run wild.
Recent years have seen both Phoenix and Gibson go out wilding, in ways that both catch attention and alienate. Gibson’s transgressions seem to involve a habitual inability to keep his prejudices at bay. Fueled by drink or anger, his rants entered the public record, went through the celebrity coverage spin-cycle, and created the spectacle of an award-winning actor on the path to embarrassment and irrelevancy.
Since 2008, Phoenix has similarly appeared to lack self-awareness. The announcement that he would retire from acting following Two Lovers and subsequent (failed) attempt to become a rap star left many questioning his state of mind. As with Gibson, this was a breakdown that occurred in public, with an incoherent appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman as the piece de resistance. Throughout his “lost years”, however, there were clues and rumors that Phoenix’s behavior was a performance. The most telling of these was actor Casey Affleck’s constant camera-equipped presence alongside Phoenix, documenting the actor’s retirement announcement, his disastrous rap shows, and yes, his Letterman appearance.
Much discussion of I’m Still Here, Affleck’s film that includes all of these scenes and more, concerns the crisis of authenticity. As spectators to Phoenix’s alleged meltdown, many viewers and critics wondered if the whole exercise was a joke or a hoax. Though the more interesting issues of authenticity are explored within the film and do not depend on an audience’s speculation. “JP”, the character Phoenix becomes within the movie, claims to want to be authentic, and thus free himself from the lines others write for him, the clothes others choose for him—in short, the life afforded him onscreen and off-screen as a result of his celebrity.
Frustrating JP’s desire to be freed from the professional actor’s existence is the chatterbox media, latching onto his every move and mocking and distorting his new professional aims, even before he’s had the opportunity to prove himself. In the final analysis, very little of I’m Still Here is real. Nearly every moment is scripted—as premeditated and performed as any other Hollywood movie or public relations campaign. Yet the film could be called authentic because of its strong (and very relevant) central argument against the exaltation and destruction of celebrities and the innovative approach both filmmaker and star take to illustrate that argument.
The main plot of I’m Still Here involves JP’s quest for hip hop and popular culture icon Diddy, who appears more frequently in the film than the mere description of such a quest might suggest. Crucially, Diddy is not used as a climactic savior to enable JP’s triumphant emergence as a rapper or as a late-breaking villain that stops him in his tracks. His function in the narrative is to be simultaneously present but elusive, like the celebrities that tease us all from the pages of magazines and TV, movie, and computer screens. They are everywhere in our lives, but this does not mean we can join their ranks. JP wants desperately to be taken seriously as a rapper by Diddy and insecurely boasts of going to “chill at Did’s”. But their meetings are sobering and sad reminders that JP does not measure up, at least not yet.
For his part, JP exercises his ego and celebrity at will, confronting stars and commoners with insolence. He embarrasses Ben Stiller as Stiller pitches Greenberg and humiliates a heckler at a rap concert, shouting “I’ve got a million dollars in the bank. What have you got?” before leaping into the crowd to fight him. Although Stiller and the heckler were both aware of JP’s artifice, such scenes convince us that a celebrity drunk with self-perceived power is no happier or healthier than one attempting to be meek and begging for a shot at hip-hop glory.
The most sickening aspect of I’m Still Here are the reactions by the gullible press and public. Interspersed among the staged observational footage of JP’s antics are montages of mostly real snippets of celebrity coverage, which turn JP into a “target of snarkery” (Affleck uses this phrase on his insightful commentary track). The public is no better, celebrating JP’s bad behavior and cheering him on as he takes down the heckler. If we consider for a moment that the majority of the press and public on display believed Phoenix was on a downward spiral into drug abuse or insanity, then their reactions are especially irresponsible and anti-human. The character JP needs help, and in I’m Still Here very few around him appear willing to attend to his health. They would rather do as they’ve been trained and pay attention to the train wreck only to blog later about having been there.
The DVD of I’m Still Here is a double-edged sword. Those upset by a perceived “hoax” by Affleck and Phoenix will find plenty of material here (two commentaries, deleted scenes, an alternate ending, and conversations with journalists) to raise their ire anew, because all of these special features could serve to make such a viewer feel particularly duped. The presence of these demystifying supplements does take some of the fun out of the grey area in which the film existed for the past few years. However, the commentary tracks are worthwhile for the information they offer on the process of constructing and executing the unconventional approach taken by Affleck and Phoenix and their co-conspirators. Affleck states on his commentary that the best way to watch I’m Still Here is in 30 years’ time, removed from the immediate context. This is an appropriate suggestion for a film that exposes the effects of a culture that expects gratification on-demand.