This is almost a companion piece to my offering from last week, I suppose, given that I have, again, taken myself off to see a motion picture profiling an individual from ‘the business of show’. On this occasion, it was to watch I’m Still Here, which is, of course, Casey Affleck’s film about Joaquin Phoenix, which was at the outset alleged to be a documentary, and has created a whole lot of hullabaloo. Probably the two things I enjoy most in this world are a low-stakes controversy at which I can throw my two cents and going to the movies on a weekday, so I was delighted to trot off on a chilly spring Tuesday to see the flick in question.
As I took my seat at the cinema, I felt triumphant about being old and therefore no longer enrolled in compulsory education, something that still never fails to please me, even though I left school twenty-five years ago. When I was a child, I would only have been snugly sitting at the movies on a weekday if there had been a class excursion to something starring Greg Rowe, in order that Storm Boy could scar us all for life. Now, though, it was just me and five hipsters. I don’t know if I have ever in my life before been in a cinema audience and noticed that every person there, including myself, was without a companion. We all sat in uncomfortable silence after the hour of one p.m. had struck yet nothing had as such appeared on the screen. I was starting to wonder if the film were such an elaborate hoax that it didn’t even exist, the myth of its existence having continued only through there having been some first-run-of-Psycho-variety of swearing of its spectators to silence.
Suffice to say that I’m Still Here did eventually start. At that point, I was relieved but if I could travel back in time, knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t exactly want to swallow a bottle of Lysol if things had worked out differently. The main trouble with the film, to my mind, is that it is one of the dreariest works of any description that I have ever sat through, and I must say that it gave me renewed appreciation for the manufactured drama in reality television that it is so fashionable to deplore. I admit that I was asleep for parts of it but it was my impression that pretty much all that happens is that Phoenix shuffles around, saying nothing at all that I can remember in detail. Sometimes he says something boring from a seated position. It troubles me that so recently after seeing the film I can barely remember a word that its subject utters, even though I can still remember chunks of a 1987 Midday show interview that Ray Martin conducted with Shane Withington, Grant Dodwell and Rebecca Rigg on the subject of the then-upcoming Willing and Abel.
On the other hand, what I did enjoy about I’m Still Here is that by going the bad-beard-and-big-gut route, not to mention referring to money as ‘bread’, Phoenix is reminiscent of the Wilson brothers at their nineteen-seventies hairiest and maddest, when Dennis was doing a whole heap of cocaine and rooting himself stupid, yet still taking the time to bribe the, by then enormous, Brian to write songs, by means of granting him a hamburger if he actually managed to complete one. Also, I was impressed to see that Phoenix could steadily hold a cigarette in his mouth, without needing to take a breath, while he played a video game, reminiscent of Ringo Starr’s magnificent efforts in this regard as he plays the ‘skins’ in the film clip for ‘You’re Going to Lose That Girl’. Less happily, though, I found Phoenix also to be reminiscent of Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in The Doors movie, by, what felt like, that film’s seventeenth hour, when we reached the era during which the bloated and hairy ‘Lizard King’ met his welcome end.
I have to say that, from start to finish, it seemed fairly plain to me that I’m Still Here was merely a stunt, although I would have been thrilled if it had turned out not to be, just as I would be charmed to discover that there is actually a Blair Witch or that a group of turn-of-the-century schoolgirls really did go and chow down at Hanging Rock and were never seen again. Life would simply be so much more exciting if all this were the case, just as it would be so much more exciting if Princess Diana were still alive and causing mischief. I admit that I’d, of course, had the benefit of all the ‘Is he/isn’t he faking it?’ coverage in coming to my conclusion that the film was clearly a prank of some kind. Probably because I’m an idiot, I generally believe anything at all that anyone tells me, so, had there not been all the ‘Is he/isn’t he faking it?’ carry-on, I’m sure I would have watched I’m Still Here as acceptingly as a baby. However, everyone and everything in the film just seems somehow unconvincing, except for the fact that Puff Diddy is at one stage wearing a top that has on it ‘Sean John’ proudly emblazoned over and over.
Possibly part of the reason that the film feels so much like a put-on is that we are now all so accustomed to celebrities showing what good sports they are by playing themselves in an unflattering way: examples range from the cavalcade of stars in Extras to Craig McLachlan’s appearance in Lowdown. Ben Stiller has over the years shown himself to be someone who really does this a lot. So, when he turns up in I’m Still Here, wanting to discuss with an uncooperative Phoenix the possibility of his playing a part in Greenberg, it feels like watching an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, if, that is, Curb were in no way amusing.
As the question of whether I’m Still Here is a ruse seems finally to have been answered by its creator and star, what is currently exercising my mind is why in God’s name Phoenix would do all this in the first place. Yes, he and his siblings have those incredibly creepy, exploitative cult-leader-like parents, which, I imagine, might lead to bizarre ‘acting out’ in adult life, but it’s hard to imagine what Phoenix is going to gain from this exercise, except for, possibly, Robert Downey Jr-level insurance premiums whenever he makes a movie, assuming, of course, that he does ever want to make one again.
On the other hand, the one thing that I’m Still Here does manage to convey convincingly is just how bored this man seems to be: lassitude permeates every frame of the film, and I don’t think that I was merely projecting my own onto it. Feeling the weight of a movie star’s boredom in this way makes Winona Ryder ruining things for herself by taking up shoplifting suddenly a lot more explicable, as does Phoenix’s willingness, despite his talent and attainments, to engage in an elaborate put-on, the chief effect of which is making him appear to be unhinged.