Sunday, September 19, 2010
I'm Still Here (Prematurely), or On Intention and Authenticity (Prematurely)
Are You Aware of this new movie, I'm Still Here? It is a movie in which Joaquin Phoenix, the Rich Man's Balthazar Getty, has a nervous breakdown and tries to become a rapper. It is shot in a documentarian style by Phoenix's brother-in-law Casey Affleck and chronicles the last few years of Phoenix's life, in which he publicly grew a beard and subjected people to terrible rapping and rants about celebrity and altogether made an ass of himself.
I'm Still Here has a lot of people feeling very clever, because Affleck, in his capacity as director, has recently informed the public that Phoenix was not actually undergoing a mental breakdown while the movie was filmed. Well, Of Course, we are all saying, We Knew It Was Fake! What clever people we all are today!
In fact what we are saying, when we say, "I'm Still Here is fake just like I told you it was," is that we are quite old-fashioned when it comes to this lingering Romantic notion of "authenticity." It is a very old thing, this obsession with "realness," and while authors like the confoundingly interesting David Shields may invite us to get a little bit more adventurous about it all, for the most part it is a very creaky sort of paradigm through which we are still processing it.
When we say that a movie documenting its star's breakdown is "fake" because he did the things the movie says he did but not for the reasons given, are we saying that action is not enough, that intention is what counts? Because after all, the events documented in the movie (with the exception of some faked home-movie footage) really happened, regardless of the principals' reasons for doing them.
Is it our position that Joaquin Phoenix did not really give an embarrassing interview on Letterman because he was not actually flipping out at the time in the same way that, say, Crispin Glover would have been? Can we then say that Tom Hanks did not really get his teeth capped for The Bonfire of the Vanities because he was not doing it in the name of Tom Hanks' dental health, or that Klaus Kinski did not really drag a boat up a mountain because it happened in the wrong half of the 20th century?
Those seeking to explain Phoenix and Affleck's work often refer to the concept of "performance art," that same context that James Franco was so lampooned for placing his work on General Hospital within. The reason this often fails is that if someone does not like what someone else is doing, he will like it even less if she says that it is "art," because if he is meritocratic about art or insecure about his ability to understand culture, this implies (to him) that she believes there is an inherent nobility to her work which he did not get.
To call the movie "performance art" is valid, because it puts the notion of "fakeness" in its appropriately irrelevant place: nobody would call, say, Marina Abramovic's screaming until her lungs gave out "fake" because she was doing it in the name of a pre-planned artwork instead of because she was being chased by a monster or what have you.
But even if we can excuse a work by calling it art, this basic reliance on intentions is still bothersome, because the fact remains that the work was not allowed into the canon until we knew "why" it was done. This is a troublesome and dangerous distinction to make, not least because if we only allowed ourselves to enjoy things that were "good" in the way their creator intended them to be, we would become very bored very fast.
David Simon, the creator of my current favorite thing The Wire, likes to say that most entertainment in our time works within a Shakesperian model, whereby the focus is on the inner lives of characters' thoughts and emotions; whereas his television program worked within more of a framework of Greek tragedy, whereby protagonists' outward actions and the consequences of those actions are what matters. When we penalize someone like Joaquin Phoenix for doing something like I'm Still Here, we are faulting him for what we judge to be a duplicitous inner nature, whereas we might find more value in examining our notions of celebrity, narrative and performance and seeing where his actions fit within these contexts.
But then, I haven't seen the movie because I live in New Zealand, so I may be quite wrong about all of this. Just pretend I was talking about Wayne Anderson: Singer of Songs.