I’m Still Here (2010) – But Most of Us Aren’t
by Dan Haggard
The dividing line between substance and style is often hard to place. Aspects that we commonly associate with substance, like plot, characterisation and theme, are sometimes better interpreted as stylistic choices that have little bearing on substance. Similarly, various stylistic elements which ordinarily we wouldn’t consider as being relevant to a discussion of substance can sometimes in fact be crucial for its analysis. If you think you have a solid grasp of this dividing line, then you need to see “I’m Still Here”, the documentary/mockumentary of the spectacular fall from grace of actor Joaquin Phoenix, directed by his brother-in-law, Casey Affleck. The central question posed by this film concerns the nature of this dividing line and how it gets drawn by contemporary culture and media. Its skill lies in the way it blocks us from drawing this line in the ways to which we are accustomed. Its genius lies in the way this problem is applied to the nature of the individual and the self and how we as outsiders perceive them. The only certainty that one can draw after having watched it is that if you are not shaken in your own self-perception to some degree by its end, then you may count yourself as being one of those who clearly inhabit the superficial side of the divide. If this is so, don’t worry – Reviews in Depth is here to help you claw your way back to the other side.
There is no greater evidence that the film is disrupting our access to our habitual standards of analysis in the fact that just about every review that you read will at least mention the issue of the ‘reality’ of the film. Is it real? Or is it just a hoax being played by Phoenix and Affleck? Both have admitted subsequently that it is. Reviewers who suspected as much, but still nevertheless offer their praise for the movie – all in chorus tell us that it doesn’t matter if it is a hoax or not. Here they pride themselves on having seen through a superficial aspect to the more important substance – as they see it. Often this matter of substance involves the epic story of self-destruction, or the question of whether the directorial choices of Affleck merit the label of ‘serious artist’. Hence you get analyses like the following from Mike Eisenberg:
But in the end, it really doesn’t matter. Whether the story is true or not (a debate that is sure to rage for a long time after this), the film nonetheless presents a story — about a man searching for his true identity in the often fake world of celebrity — that is as gripping and moving as any indie or drama movie that I’ve seen in recent years. Spend as much time as you like trying to discern the reality of it all, but if you do you’ll miss the real show.
Notice that the substance of the film, as determined by Eisenberg, is not the reality of the character that we observe, but the story itself – taken as fictional piece. And we are therefore supposed to address the question of the substance of the piece as we would any other fictional story.
But should we? And is the substance of the film as Eisenberg calls it? Sorry – it’s just not that simple. If it makes any sense at all to identify the substance of this film then the most that one can say is that it challenges our very understanding of the notion of substance itself – insofar as that notion is being applied to the process of criticism. No matter which framework of analysis you apply, there are no firm footholds from which to offer your comfortable critique. I’m Still Here undermines them all. That there seems to be virtually no awareness of this amongst the reviewing elite makes me think that films such as this are important and necessary. The hoax is well and truly on all of them.
There is no simple way to view this as a straightforward story of a tragic fall from grace. There is no way to isolate the question of the hoax from the film considered solely in virtue of the content it has to offer – precisely because the hoax is a substantive element of the film itself. It is a major plot driver insofar as the widespread belief in the actuality of the hoax causes many characters (like Diddy) to doubt the sincerity of Phoenix’s ambition to be a rapper. Part of what the film is about in its story and essential drama is the hoax, or at least its possibility. One gets the sense that critics like Eisenberg don’t engage with this fact because then the film becomes too hard to conceptually frame, or perhaps they are just lazy. But either way, it is difficult to understand how they could be THIS blinkered.
It has come to light, through the admissions of both Phoenix and Affleck that the movie is indeed a hoax. Okay fine. But this doesn’t make the task of analysis any simpler. When we confront the film with the issue of reality vs seeming in mind, knowing that it is a hoax doesn’t allow us to draw any easy conclusions.
For instance, Phoenix himself has said that they wanted to explore the fact that people are beguiled into accepting reality television as ‘real’ just because the television networks label it so. This framework encourages us to view the film as a kind of satire or simulation of reality television. Since they declare the reality of Phoenix’s ambition, one can then see it as an exploration of the way this false declaration actually generates reality around itself – just as the declarations attached to ‘reality television’ manage to turn falsehood into the real and genuine reactions of the audience who respond to the trials and tribulations of the supposedly real characters to which they are exposed.
But again – even if this was part of the intent of the film makers, it’s really not so simple. If it was their intent, then the film itself transcends it (and I’d like to think they actually are aware that it does). Why? Well, consider the question that Phoenix has posed. We are asked to question what it is about the declaration of a reality television show that beguiles its audience while nevertheless generating a new reality around itself. Given this, it’s no small irony to see Phoenix, clean shaven and well dressed, return to David Letterman to tell us all that it was indeed a hoax. Why should his current declaration have any greater weight than his previous claim that it was real? If there is a degree to which such reality-tv-style declarations of reality are suspect, then we have to ask to what degree this applies equally to the claim by the film makers that it is in fact a hoax. We also have to consider in what ways these supposedly true claims about the hoax status of the film come to effect reality going forward.
On the question of why the declaration of the hoax is more believable than the claim about the film’s reality – is it because he has returned to his previous clean shaven appearance and is able to now hold a reasonably erudite conversation? Is this so significant really? Any producer of a reality television program likewise is quite capable of appearing sensible enough to be convincing of their claims. And what about the reality television stars themselves? Many of them act insensibly and idiotically – and none of this causes in us any particular doubt. The question is – what entitles us to assume that the clean shaven, well spoken Phoenix is in fact the authentic, REAL Phoenix? The crazy, self-absorbed version is so brilliantly and convincingly acted (if it is indeed acting) – that really most of us have more evidence that this is the real version. It’s more sustained than anything most of us have otherwise seen.
The irony in the Pheonix’s claim that it is a hoax is so grand that I do hope it is intentional. It’s not just that his previous lie about its status might cause us to doubt him going forward – it’s because they have deliberately problematised the whole issue of how we should come to decide upon its reality. The whole film and its surrounding miasma of criticism instructs us to be wary of the labels placed by the creators of content. To say that the author is dead is a little trite nowadays. Nevertheless, it quite a feat to smack the audience around with this truth, even while most of them are barely aware they just got smacked.
Eisenberg’s claim that to question the reality of the story is to miss the ‘real show’ is yet another layer of irony that truly becomes mind boggling. Spend some time de-constructing that phrase: ’real show’. One way you can apply it is to the real events surrounding Phoenix’s actions in the actual world (fakery or not). Taken this way, then the ‘real show’, becomes just this maelstrom of criticism, reaction and questioning. The ‘real show’ is the way the question of the hoax became central in the minds of so many commentators and spectators – and important to understanding this show is the means by which we make decisions about the reality of what we are seeing. But of course, this is not what Eisenberg construes as the ‘real show’. For him, the ‘real show’ is the fictional story of Phoenix that we are presented.
Of course, as I’ve already pointed out, Eisenberg can’t even grasp the full nature of the real show as he himself describes it, since the question of the hoax is absolutely central to the drama itself. But the full depth of the irony in his claim is apparent when you realise that it’s arguable that Eisenberg has in fact completely missed the show – at least, he’s missed one of the most interesting and important of the shows that one might get from this film. He has missed the question as to just how it is that reality is constructed, labelled and believed. In doing so – he constructs as the ‘substance’ of the film it’s fictional narrative – as opposed to the reality with which it is directly engaged.
For me, one of the most interesting ‘shows’, is that in which commentators like Eisenberg play a central role. It is the way in which they apprehend the substance of whatever it is they are viewing. It is the way in which they are mis-directed in this enterprise by their own biases and pre-formed critical faculties. What this film reveals to us is just how static and inflexible these critical faculties often are.
But now let’s turn away from the specific question about the reality of the film and engage more directly in Eisenberg’s suggestion that we should instead focus on the drama. To do so is to view the question of substance vs style from a different angle. We are no longer judging its substance from the perspective of reality vs seeming, because we are now viewing it as we would any other dramatic fiction. The question of its reality is (simplistically) taken to be settled in the negative. The question of its substance now becomes a question as to the nature of this dramatic experience. What is breathtaking about this film is the way that it disrupts and undermines any straightforward way of approaching the question in this new guise – just as it did from the previous perspective.
Take for instance Eisenberg’s praise for the film. He says “that it is as gripping and moving as any indie or drama movie” that he has seen. On the face of it though, this assessment is laughable. It’s the story of an a-list hollywood actor that throws it all away to become a rapper. It’s absurd – a deliberate choice that from the very beginning prevents us from being able to comfortably emphasise with the character. There is no pathos here, no tragedy. He does not err through excellence or exaggerated nobility. The character is so deluded, vain and obnoxious that there is no other reasonable conclusion than the one that has the character experience every level of suffering for his ignorant arrogance. But then, it’s very unlikely that the film is intending to make us feel anything for the character at all.
It’s not surprising then that many reviewers, less desperate to find something worthy in the narrative (since they haven’t the critical skills to approach it on any other level) – see absolutely nothing instructive or moving. Ebert‘s is one such critique – not even his faith in the reality of Phoenix’s collapse causes him to feel any pity whatsoever. And despite the overall naivety of his engagement, this is nevertheless a pretty reasonable response – if one is simply reacting to the character taken at face value.
What you might try to argue is that although the film doesn’t pull it off, still it is at least trying to aim to present a kind of tragic pathos. Your argument would likely proceed in the following way. Any good tragedy will single out some noble aspect of the protagonist, the extreme devotion to which becomes their downfall. Such stories are tragic, generate pathos and result in audience catharsis. They do so precisely because we are liberated from the expectation of having to live up to such super human expectations. We realise that in their extreme such noble virtues become perverse and destructive.
Now – can Phoenix be said to embody any such virtue? Perhaps. At the very beginning of the film he is presented as one who is seeking authentic self expression. In other contexts, this is presented more simply as the process of following his dreams. This is certainly a virtue – at least to many people. It is so common a theme in our culture that we are blasted with the message from all quarters – that it’s important to chase after one’s dreams. So okay – this is possibly an aspect that we might admire in Phoenix. And perhaps our catharsis is intended to involve a liberation from this virtue insofar as the pursuance of ones dreams can often cause great hardship – as it certainly does in Phoenix’s case.
We might go on to argue that the presentation is botched because in order for tragedy to do its cathartic work, the noble pursuit has to be believable and reasonable. We have to be able to put ourselves in the position of the protagonist. If they are deluded in their pursuits, then they have to be reasonably deluded. ”Im Still Here” can be said to fail in this attempt because of the extreme absurdity of his aim – that of becoming a rapper. His delusion is so extreme, his skill at rapping so poor, it’s difficult for us to understand how he could possibly believe that his career in rap is achievable without years and year of hard work ahead of him. Hence the tragic yarn ultimately fails to achieve its aim.
Now I will happily accept this line of critique is pretty reasonable – and also considerably more sophisticated than most of what you’ll find out there. The problem with it is that it rests on an assumption that is questionable – that the substance of the narrative in this film aims at tragedy. After all, as I’ve already mentioned. Phoenix’s pursuit is putatively absurd. What’s more, his egotism is juxtaposed so strongly against his dream pursuit that it is impossible to separate one from the other – the former being a noble pursuit, the latter being considerably less so. Either the execution of the tragedy is absolutely beyond woeful, or something else is being aimed at. But what?
It’s extremely difficult to find any characterisation that fits. We might say that instead the film is an attempt at tragi-comedy. Certainly there are comedic elements – some which I found genuinely funny. But then the changes in tone toward the deeply serious – particularly at the end of the film where Phoenix comes to realise his error – make it hard to sustain this interpretation as well. It’s as though the film itself suddenly believes in its own sense of tragedy, even while only a few moments before it was revelling in its bizarre absurdism.
We could just leave it at this and claim that the film is an odd chimera of styles and methodologies that genuinely achieve something new, yet nonsensical. If we try to engage with the substance of film as we would any other fictional narrative, then we find that it embodies, yet disobeys a number of different stylistic conventions, making it impossible for us to feel at ease with any of our interpretations. If we try to engage with it as biography, then we are confronted immediately with the same issues of authenticity and authority, but at the level of the film itself.
Nevertheless, I ultimately think this would be a mistake. Sense can be made of this film, and it can be done by seeing it as a deconstruction of the distinction between style and substance. When we do this, suddenly the stylistic choices become coherent and compliment this thematic choice.
Consider for instance what it is that actually causes us to accept that the film is most likely a hoax. It’s not so much any particular declaration to this effect by the film makers, but the established reality of the character of Joaquin Phoenix that we have come to accept. We cry ‘hoax’ because we don’t accept such a change in personality is possible. Hence our expectations constrain what we’ll accept as real. Crucially, these constraints of perception (and pre-conception) are directly fore-grounded by the film right from the very start – and at multiple levels. In this way the very odd style of the movie comes to match perfectly its central theme.
How? Well, take for instance the way Phoenix complains that as an actor he can’t authentically express himself as who he is. He is just a puppet that is told where to stand and what to say. This is a wonderful symbol of the way expectations constrain self-realisation and make puppets of us all. This fact of constraint continues to play out through the narrative as the belief in the hoax plays a significant role in Phoenix failing to realise his ambition. But then what is left of the notion of the substance of the individual? What sense can we now make of the romantic notion of authenticity which was supposed to provide such a clear line between style and substance?
The strange stylistic choices of the film, the ones that make it so difficult for us to get at its substance, come now to perfectly mirror the difficulty we have with accessing the authentic reality of the individual as determined by self-actualisation. Such access is obfuscated by the constraints generated by our own perceptions of the reality of the individual.
The process by which we engage with the reality of the film as well as the reality of Phoenix as an individual becomes part of the film itself. Our disbelief in Phoenix’s transformation; our willingness to participate in his humiliation; our inability to critique the film on a deeper level – these all map to its central theme: the thin line between style and substance, and our hubris in supposing we have that line sussed. The text of the film, if you like, lives outside the celluloid in the real world of our perceptions, expectations as well as our shallowness in critical appreciation.
If this is correct then the film really should be a kick in the guts for anyone who has been able to follow me thus far. The difficulty that we have in accessing the substance of the film should become a mirror for the difficulty which we have in accessing the authentic reality of our own lives. If we are characters in this film – if our expectations, perceptions and critical faculties have been shown to be so open to manipulation and outright failure, then we have to take this to be a mirror of the general failure in our own abilities at self realisation.
The conceptual and analytical impoverishment of the general reaction to this film stands as the greatest symbol I know of the overall penury of our inner lives. The film is a mirror of our empty, vacuous existence because so many have looked into it only to see it reflecting their shallow interpretations back at them. If you saw something similar – know that this emptiness exists inside of you, and you need to start thinking about what you can do to change it.