Art is the lie that tells the truth
I just watched “I’m still here“, the latest movie by and about Joaquin Phoenix (Casey Affleck is the director, writer, actor). I am assuming that everybody has seen the infamous appearance of Joaquin Phoenix at the David Letterman show, where he reiterated the fact that he is retiring from acting and pursuing a career as a hip-hop singer (this statement was made at a time near the apogee of his acting career). The clip caused an unprecedented stir, with people wondering whether it was a hoax or Joaquin had simply gone nuts.
It turns out that Joaquin was living a role for more than a year and half of his life. Living a role is not a new concept. A nice example is the documentary “Super size me” (in which Morgan Spurlock documents himself for a 30 day period during which he only eats McDonald’s food), and an interesting concept from the world of magicians appears in the excellent Christopher Nolan film “The Prestige” (based on a novel by Christopher Priest in which identical twin brothers, Albert and Frederick, both live the life of Albert and go to great lengths to keep this fact secret from everybody they know, including a girlfriend, in order to perform a stunning teleportation act where Albert seems to appear from one location to another instantaneously, defying the laws of physics).
But Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix took this concept to another level, in real life, not in fiction, and for a prolonged period of time. I have to admit that they had me fooled for all this time. Their act was extremely convincing. I refrained from reading any news about Joaquin or the movie, before I watched it, and I have to admit that even while I was watching the film I could not decide whether Joaquin was playing a role or if he had just hit rock bottom. In my opinion it was a stellar performance and an interesting study of celebrity and the fact that the consumers of celebrity (i.e., us) by and large are ready to shred to pieces human beings when they seem to be most vulnerable, simply for entertainment (I am thinking about Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, etc.).
Roger Ebert from the Chicago Sun-Times conducted a very revealing interview with Casey Affleck that gives more intimate details about the concept and filming the movie and is worth reading. I can hardly remember the last time a piece of art created such a prolonged debate or stirred the interest of so many people. I always liked Joaquin Phoenix as an actor, but I have nothing but admiration after “I’m still here” — the guy has guts! I wish this one goes down as a great performance in the Oscars.