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Film Review "I'm Still Here"

September 8, 2010 4:31 p.m.

KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando reviews "I'm Still Here."

Related Story: Review: 'I'm Still Here'


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

KPBS FM Radio Film Review: “I’m Still Here”
By Beth Accomando
Air Date: September 9, 2010

A couple years ago actor Joaquin Phoenix claimed to be retiring from acting in order to pursue a career in rap music. “KPBS film critic Beth Accomando says there is now a new film documenting that rocky transition.

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(Tag:) “I’m Still Here” opens tomorrow (Friday) at Landmark’s Hillcrest cinemas. You can find more of Beth’s reviews and post your own comments at K-P-B-S-dot-O-R-G-slash-cinema-junkie.

In 2008, actor Joaquin Phoenix surprised E! News with this announcement.

JOAQUIN PHOENIX: Listen I want to take this opportunity also to give you an exclusive and talk a little about the fact that this will be my last performance as an actor, I’m not doing films any more…. Why are you laughing?
REPORTER: I’m not laughing I’m just getting the sense that you’re kidding.

And so do we. Phoenix claimed he was ending his acting career to become a hip-hop musician and for many that was hard to take seriously. Now actor Casey Affleck has made a documentary about his brother-in-law’s attempt to reinvent himself. But Phoenix arrives late for a meeting and doesn’t even know how to address his host.

JOAQUIN PHOENIX: Uh, Phoenix, Joaquin, Phoenix to see Diddy, Mr. Combs, Sean.

It’s hard to believe this documentary when everyone seems to be self-consciously performing. Even Affleck can’t even keep a straight face when the E! reporter asks him about Joaquin’s retirement.

REPORTER: Joaquin retiring, true or false?
CASEY AFFLECK: Uh yes, um I guess he’s getting into I guess he’s getting into music I mean don’t know he’s putting out an album I gotta do this…

It was supposed to be a surprise announcement yet Affleck is ready with his cameras to record the breaking news on the red carpet. He seems ready to make a documentary before Phoenix would have even been aware there was a documentary to make. That’s only one of the reasons it’s a little hard to buy “I’m Still Here” as anything but a hoax.

REPORTER: What do you think if there was a movie made out of your life years from now, you should say should be taken from this night?

We’ve come to a point with technology and art where the line between fact and fiction can easily be blurred. We have Christopher Guest’s overt mockumentaries that make fun of real things like community theater. Then we have Sasha Baron Cohen assuming a character like Borat and then half scripting, half improvising bizarre reality TV comedies. And we have Michael Moore serving up documentaries that are as scripted as a fiction film.

In the case of “I’m Still Here?” you have to ask yourself, is it a truthful documentary, a hoax, or a mockumentary? And does it even matter? The truth is it may be all three. Maybe Joaquin Phoenix got tired of acting and working in Hollywood. His rants and raves about not wanting to be a puppet and mouthing someone else’s lines are probably real. So his solution may have been to entertain himself by pulling an elaborate hoax, one in which like Cohen, he assumes a character. Only in this case the character is himself.

LETTERMAN: When will we see the new music career take off cause we want to be there.
JOAQUIN PHOENIX: I’d love to come on the show.

This notorious appearance on Letterman made people begin to wonder if Phoenix had really lost it. But I doubt Letterman would have allowed Phoenix to appear on the show and surprise him with this behavior.

LETTERMAN: Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.

The problem is that for a hoax to work, people need to be fooled. But Phoenix and Affleck seem so pleased with themselves about how clever they are that they simply can’t contain themselves. At one point Affleck even interviews the woman who reported that the whole thing was a fraud. You feel both Affleck and the reporter smirking as she says she can’t reveal her sources. Perhaps that’s because her source is the man asking the question. Plus the film ends with thanks to such merry pranksters as Ben Stiller and Shepherd Fairey.

A better example of a cinematic hoax is the recent “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” It truly leaves you wondering if you’ve been hoodwinked or not but you don’t care because you’ve been raucously entertained and privy to a brilliant satire on the art world. But Joaquin and company are not that entertaining and they’re not capable of wicked satire.

JOAQUIN PHOENIX: What I want it to be is like a place of true experimentation…
SEAN COMBS: Can you do that in acting?

Maybe Joaquin is satirizing himself and self-absorbed, tormented artists. But to what end? If it’s real than it’s at least truthful and painful. If it’s a performance then it’s merely humorless and dull. If all that “I’m Still Here” documents is a hoax then Joaquin Phoenix is a far better actor than I ever suspected because he maintains a dour, humorless, and painfully pretentious demeanor to perfection. But we’re still left wondering at what point does all this faux filmmaking simply become meaningless?

For KPBS, I’m Beth Accomando.