I’M STILL HERE. Documentary film with Antony Langdon, Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck. Directed by Casey Affleck. MA 15+ (Strong coarse language, nudity, sexual references and drug use). 107 minutes.
The notorious Joaquin Phoenix ‘documentary’ about his decision to quit acting and become a rap star.
While Phoenix is on screen, and that is 99% of the film, there is time (a lot of time, lots of time) to think other thoughts, or connected thoughts, like ‘wrestling’. We know wrestling is set up to look brutal, tough and realistic, pounding an opponent, or leg-choking him or her, while it is all contrived to make the wrestler a hero in the eyes of the fans. They also have ‘Celebrity Wrestling’. This is something of what I’m Still Here is like.
Of course, there is the basic question that journalists and movie buffs have been asking for two years or more. Is this story of Joaquin Phoenix and his dramatic career change really true? Has it been a hoax (and this question gets a lot of play in the film)? Then there is the key question that a reporter asks, ‘Who cares?’. There are many repetitions of aggro sequences and many more lulls when the response surges, ‘I don’t’.
If Phoenix had not been a member of his famous family and if he had not been a movie star, could this bulky, wildly-bearded, semi-articulate oaf be intrinsically interesting?
Then, one spends time going through the alphabet to see if there are any funny variations on mockumentary or rockumentary. There are some vulgar ones. Perhaps zonkumentary might work but trickumentary, which this is, seems a little tame (and working out that the documentary on Chinese cooking could be a wokumentary, or the teenage acne study, pockumentary...).
Back to the film, what else is there to see and think about? Celebrity, mainly. Instant celebrity in a reality TV age and Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame. Why so much interest in Joaquin Phoenix or in his alleged career change – after all, he hadn’t given up showbiz to save the world? Why the entertainment industry hyperhype? Why the crowds at his (execrable) concert in Florida? Why the stalking paparazzi and yaparazzi? The only answer the film offers is a sense of bewilderment – though the whole charade was highly organised and promoted over the years.
And Phoenix is not an especially interesting or likeable person on this evidence. You really wouldn’t have wanted to meet him at this phase of his life – though the contrivance moves finally to picturing him as tragic as he ponders it all.
There are some compensations. David Letterman is hilarious with Phoenix as a reluctant, laconic, gum-chewing guest as is Ben Stiller’s impersonation of the hirsute, taciturn Phoenix at the Oscars
And the end. Back to the home movie that opened the film, Panama 1981, and little Leif Phoenix being persuaded to take the plunge from a rock into a waterfall pool. Now big, older Joaquin immerses himself and swims underwater (his new womb for rebirthing), then a long, very long, very long take, camera following his shirtless back until he submerges again – to go back to acting? - (though it looks as though he never left it while making this film).
Casey Affleck (married to Summer Phoenix) obviously has directing talent with lots of camera set-ups so studied that they are for a fiction (even spontaneous vomiting sequences), the fiction of and behind the celebrity scenes.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.