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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 10, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 37
Nebulous I'm Still Here flawed, but fascinating
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Nebulous I'm Still Here flawed, but fascinating

by Scott Rice - SGN Contributing Writer

I'm Still Here
Opening September 10


I'm Still Here is many things. One thing it's not: a conventional documentary, regardless of the straight-faced claims by the filmmakers. But let's talk about what I'm Still Here is.

I'm Still Here is an interesting attempt at social satire. This is a film about the viewer as much as it is a film about Joaquin Phoenix. This is a film about how much we relish watching stars fall, how much we revel in the failure of others. We've collectively viewed the Letterman video millions of times, vainly trying to figure out what went wrong with the handsome young star. These days, by the time you get to the "q" in Joaquin's name while searching YouTube, "joaquin phoenix letterman" pops right up. Whether it's Britney going cue ball circa 2007 or Fatty Arbuckle crushing a starlet to death in flagrante circa 1921, we like our celebrities to go large and fall hard.

I'm Still Here is also a film about celebrity and all that celebrity entails. Unfortunately, the celebrity in this instance, the character of the narcissistic actor capriciously turned wannabe rapper, seems slightly cliché at times, which makes a fairly clever little movie feel a tad less clever. The boys, director Casey Affleck and Phoenix, are going for urbane but come off smug. Joaquin opens the film by whining about being known as an emotional, tense, and complicated artist. Really? It must be quite a cross to bear.

As we know celebrities aren't just misunderstood and tortured. They're also egotistical and debauched. Joaquin doesn't let us down. This version of Joaquin, self referenced in the film as J.P., is a bloated, chain smoking, cocaine snorting, hooker fucking snot without an ounce of effective introspection or restraint. J.P. screams at his friend and personal assistant (don't they know this will end poorly?), Anton, "I'll shit on your face!" at one point - a tortured metaphor that J.P. lives to keenly regret.

Successful celebrities are also impulsive and arrogant. J.P. feels artistically constrained by his acting career lamenting that he is nothing more than a doll being dressed up, told where to stand, and told what to say. This prompts him to quit acting and pursue a career as a rapper. He chats up Mos Def about his desire to be "epic" and actually gets a meeting with Sean Combs (speaking of ... never mind). The climax comes as J.P. is heckled off the stage and ends up barfing into a toilet while his assistant dutifully holds his tie out of the puke-stream.

There's also an unfortunate allusion, intended or not (it doesn't matter), to the title of I'm Not There, the avant-garde Bob Dylan bio pic by Todd Haynes (a much better film). Both films purport to be biographical, yet are not, in fact, documentary (that's my opinion in the case of I'm Still Here, though I'm quite sure folks will be arguing about this for years to come, as if it were Mulholland Drive).

And calling something documentary brings up another problem: What is documentary, and how much theater is involved when you turn the camera on? We use the term "documentary" to describe movies that are about real subjects. We document reality; we create fiction. But documentary films are usually narrative and often somewhat fictional. Certain elements of most documentaries incorporate cinematic devices, recreations, and flawed recollections to draw their subjects. Simply turning the camera on changes reality into ... something else. So, in the fading (we hope) era of reality television with its manufactured stars and with the advent of digital landscapes and ubiquitous internet journalism, reality itself seems to be in a state of flux. I'm Still Here takes a talented guy with real star power and turns him into a reality show hack about one step below Spencer Pratt. That's good satire.

Mostly, I'm Still Here is a fascinating attempt at a satirical take on the notion of celebrity. Satire is tough to get right, and it's high praise to say Affleck and Phoenix get it right a good 80% of the time. There are some truly hilarious moments and you can't help having some emotional response to the bloated and filthy shade of a former A-lister. Either Joaquin has gone batshit crazy, or he has dedicated two years of his life collaborating with his talented brother-in-law to make a fascinating, if flawed, little film.

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