If it's a performance, it's a jaw-dropping one. And isn't that what we're all here at the Toronto International Film Festival to see?
The documentary I'm Still Here, directed by Casey Affleck, chronicles the tumultuous months in 2008 in which his brother-in-law, Joaquin Phoenix, declared that he was quitting acting to become a rapper, grew a mountain-man beard and mumbled his way into talk-show infamy. Or is it a documentary? After the film's first TIFF press screening on Thursday afternoon, critics were divided as to how much - if any - of what they'd just seen was real.
Either way, the movie is pretty astonishing. If it's real, it's a triumph of access (and - warning - rated AA-18). Phoenix allowed himself to be filmed scrolling call-girl sites on the Internet ("I want to smell their little butt holes," he squeals), snorting cocaine off a hooker's bare breast (her face is digitally blurred), vomiting after a fist fight, humiliating himself in front of music impresario Sean (Diddy) Coombs and raging, shirtless and flabby, at his various hangers-on. His hair grows ever more matted, and the ratty pieces of tape holding his sunglasses together get bigger and bigger. (He also uses his sunglass arm, deftly, as a coke spoon.) So startlingly intimate are some scenes, that either Affleck and Phoenix have the most trusting relationship ever, or there's going to be one hell of a battle at their next Thanksgiving dinner. (Affleck is married to Phoenix's sister Summer.)
If the film is staged (and please note, a closing credit reads, "Written and produced by Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck"), it means something even bigger: It means that Phoenix was willing to give over two years of his life, and risk the utter ruination of his acting career - an Oscar nominee, he once did fine work in many movies, including To Die For and I Walk the Line - to a piece of performance art.
Personally, I think "reality" is somewhere in the middle: part actual footage, part damage control to suggest that Phoenix is in on the joke he's become, and not as crazy as he seems.
Phoenix could be that great an actor. But I'm not sure his long-time publicist could have faked the look on her face while watching Phoenix's now-legendary meltdown on David Letterman's show. ("What can you tell us about your days with the Unibomber?" Letterman asked, while Phoenix stared back blankly.) Her expression goes from hopeful (Is this funny?) to uncomfortable to sad in a way that sure looked real to me.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter, because the film isn't just about Phoenix. It's about the toxicity of celebrity culture. So whether he's been genuinely burned or is merely presenting a cautionary tale, he's shining a light on something that everyone enamoured of celebrity culture needs to think about. (Especially all of us here at TIFF, where there are more handlers per actor than ever, and movie companies have started making critics sign embargo agreements saying they won't write about a film until a specified date. Both are desperate-feeling attempts to control what everyone knows is uncontrollable.)
Phoenix says he's sick of being a characterization rather than a person; that he no longer wants to be a "puppet who wears, stands and says what someone else wants me to." That's not uncommon among celebs, I'm sure. But what Affleck's film demonstrates brilliantly is how relentless and endless that objectification has been rendered by recent media technology.
The trajectory goes something like this: Phoenix says something on a talk show (on several talk shows, which Affleck shows simultaneously via split-screen). Other talk shows comment on it. It moves out in waves over the Internet. Then talk shows talk about what's happening on the Internet. Ben Stiller wears a Phoenix beard to the Oscars. Soon hundreds of people download video of themselves wearing Phoenix beards. Someone in a Phoenix beard shows up at a Phoenix concert. Phoenix reacts to it.
And then you realize, for someone like him, there is no "real" life any more. There's only this meta-life, where he's trapped into reacting to these ripples upon ripples, with every action getting more distorted. I keep thinking of the scene in Inception where the streetscape rises up and folds over on itself. I think life must be like that for the famous. Once you add cameras to your life, no one can tell the real from the unreal.
The pursuit of celebrities has changed so much in the last 10 years, it's hard to fathom. It used to be that celebs had to do something bad - be caught drunk in public, or kissing someone not their spouse in a doorway at dawn - to be tabloid-worthy. And they were pursued only by pros with long lenses. Now every civilian with a cellphone is a photographer, they swarm the subject without shame, they download the image instantly, and just as instantly, it spreads around the world. The speed at which a person can be raised up or brought low is truly frightening.
The actor Adrian Grenier ( Entourage) presents a similar take on this in his current documentary Teenage Paparazzo. A kid takes Grenier's photo. Grenier starts to make a doc about the kid. Pretty soon camera crews are following around his camera crew, taking paparazzi shots of the paparazzo, offering him a "reality" show. The kid's personality mutates. Grenier shows him the film in progress. The unpleasantness of the kid's screen persona makes him change again. It's life as a Mobius strip, ever winding around itself, until everything's so twisted up that no one can see straight.
"This dome of media reflects us, who we think we are and who we want to be," Grenier said at a Q&A after a Toronto screening. "How do you get a guy who's looking at himself to stop looking at himself? Give him another layer of self-awareness. I realize that I'm now layers of Adrian and Vince [his Entourage character] all masturbating at the same time. I'm excited for when man and tabloid media will be one." Was he kidding? Who could tell?
A fake press release went out to TIFF media Thursday, claiming that a man pretending to be Joaquin Phoenix was stirring up drama on TIFF red carpets, that Affleck and Phoenix were aware of the hoax, and that a statement would be made by someone before the TIFF premiere of I'm Still Here on Friday night. We in the press knew the release was fake, because it came out before the festival had even started, before any so-called red-carpet incidents could possibly have occurred. And maybe that was the point, maybe the film's PR firm released it then on purpose, knowing that we would know it was fake, adding more meta to the mess.
But they didn't need a stunt. The film, and what it demonstrates so chillingly about what we're all participating in (guilty of?) here at TIFF - spinning movies into sensations, spinning humans into icons - is dizzying enough.