Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Since the Letterman interview was the pinnacle of both Joaquin Phoenix’s deranged performance and the film itself, we’ve already seen the most compelling sequence of a film that overcompensates for its “real” “documentary” qualities with a lack of focus. That’s because it’s not actually about a celebrity spiral, not in itself, and it’s not about the relationship between art and truth like its cousins Exit Through the Gift Shop and Catfish. No, I’m Still Here is a dystopian present of tabloid culture.
See if you can guess the connecting thread among I’m Still Here’s primary influences, tonal, aesthetic, and moral: MTV Cribs, in which we witness an untouchable celebrity in his natural habitat; The Real World, in which a bunch of people simulating real life succumb to cabin fever; TRL, in which we endure awkward interviews with actors interrupting the ostensible purpose of the show; The Hills, in which everyone keeps a straight face aiding and abetting the awful, amateur adventures in art perpetrated by the stars; Jackass, in which, well, I won’t spoil what exactly, but suffice it to say I’m Still Here is shot through with a puerility that can only be described as Steve-o-esque. It’s a pimped ride, a pregnant teen, and an anti-smoking PSA away from replacing MTV’s development slate and just airing on repeat.
That’s because, like MTV, I’m Still Here is really about the garish American preoccupation with celebrity. Let me rephrase that. I’m Still Here is really about the schadenfreude element of the garish American preoccupation with celebrity, the fascination with which we behold famous trainwrecks, an element of immaturity carefully cultivated and rewarded as a means of establishment cooption by such “reality” networks as MTV, E!, and Bravo, not to mention such disparate media as People magazine and Perez Hilton. I’m Still Here is just giving us what we want. Well, not we. I’m sure you and I are very classy people who would never leaf through a tabloid or click on a TMZ headline.
In that light, I’m Still Here is either appropriately ugly, cheap, and poorly shot and edited (because sometimes beautifully shot and edited, but only sometimes), or it’s just ugly, cheap, and poorly you get the idea. It’s unfocused and overlong; by the end, you’re screaming, “We get it!” But much of the film is wonderful: consider the first present-day scene, Phoenix wandering around his yard ranting about his Princess Jasmine-like prison, director Casey Affleck shooting from behind in almost complete darkness except for the navy hoodie that finally turns and looks at us as he’s made his decision to quit acting.
Curiously the film traffics in its own celebrity fascination. There’s Ben Stiller, playing himself, in a gloriously awkward meeting about Greenberg; there’s Edward James Olmos, a generous man clearly worried about Phoenix and reaching out to him with a touching monologue; there’s Sean Combs, a serious artist juggling his concern that Phoenix is Punking him (there’s another MTV show) and his concern for his acquaintance’s obvious mental distress. The surprise is that these vignettes, among the film’s most riveting, don’t undercut the argument but supplement it—would these people be as interesting if they weren’t famous?
It’s too bad I’m Still Here plays more as indictment than exploration. There’s a lot to chew on here, but the film, like tabloid culture, is a dangerous distraction. In the end I’m Still Here gets lost drooling over the outrageous antics of its star.