December 26, 2010

A Study of the Other

They say that “I’m Still Here,” the documentary featuring Joaquin Phoenix’s transition from a film actor to a rapper, was a hoax. Casey Affleck, who directed the film and co-produced it with Phoenix, even admitted it himself, stating that the documentary was in fact a “fake.” I was well aware of this and the angry criticism the film received before watching it for the first time this weekend. Perhaps if I had watched the film thinking that it was a full-on documentary only to learn that it was a fake I would’ve been angry too. But somehow, despite the fact that I knew this, I still found the film riveting – whether by fictional or non-fictional standards – because of the film’s display of performance.

The notion of performing is paramount here, as Joaquin “JP” Phoenix is not only attempting to strip away his actor persona in an attempt to be authentically viewed as a rapper, but he is doubly performing in his capacity as an unkempt, coke-snorting derelict whose constantly anxiety-ridden state seems to be a product of smoking too much weed. Here, JP’s performance is flawless, albeit a bit ridiculous, and in character JP is posing as the kind of individual who takes himself far too seriously to even realize that he may be perceived as such. This is the image of someone who is choosing to not conform for conformance sake, not because he disagrees with conformance or the status quo, necessarily, but because he wants to be viewed as the Other, which he achieves in part by donning ill-fitting clothes, electrical-taped-glasses, pseudo dreads, a growing gut, and making philosophical statements about life that simply make him sound like an asshole.

While he is trying to be anything but, JP is a cliché. This is what I find perhaps most interesting about the film – the character study of someone’s forced lateral transition from critically acclaimed actor to rapper with street cred while simultaneously making a conscious effort to appear unconscious in making an effort not to give a fuck about life. We are all guilty of this in some way, although JP’s display of it is magnified, not as a cartoon blown out of proportion but instead in a way that is barely obvious enough so that it seems natural. His efforts to appear carelessly dignified are a mark of actually conforming in the sense that what is status quo appears to carry more weight to him than to those who participate in the status quo simply because that is what evolution intends us to do.

Despite this, JP cannot be shamed for attempting to take a different path; it’s just that his intents for doing so seem to be in vain. And while his choices in his current state do not make life easier for him – he experiences multiple strained relationships with both men and women alike, is publicly ridiculed by both the music industry and the acting community, and is on the brink of experiencing financial woes –all of this is something he seems to seek a strange solace because that means he’s successfully taken on the role of the Other, which bears more importance to him than his transition from actor to rapper.

While an obviously conscious effort, this is clearly a character trait that is inherent to who JP is fundamentally, and cinematically the film showcases this with skilled mastery. The movie opens and closes with similar waterfall scenes, showing JP’s progression through life. Musically, the film focuses on his rapping and various beats early on, only to transition to soundtrack music, in particular the emotionally driven track by new age pianist, George Winston. Where JP seems like a pathetic joke until the last quarter of the film, we come to identify with him toward the end, undoubtedly because of the challenges he faces with ridicule and non-acceptance in the face of seeking achievement. And, while he seeks some solace in this still because he has achieved the state of Other, we see that maintaining such a state is nevertheless alienating and lonely. For these reasons, I was quite taken by the pseudo-documentary, even if it turned out to be a hoax.