Understanding "I'm Still Here". This can't be real, right?
I’m Still Here is a 2010 film by Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix. It explores celebrity culture and its scandals and in doing so it plays with the boundaries of truth and fiction.
I'm still here
At first sight, the film seems to be a project by director Casey Affleck, who follows Joaquin Phoenix around with a camera as he plans to retire as an actor and focus on his new hip hop career. Through this journey, we get to see how a celebrity scandal unfolds: Phoenix announces his retirement in October 2008 and adopts his new persona – a scruffy, uncontrolled, and unstable version of himself, who turns out to be not particularly successful as a rapper. As his new identity is revealed to the audience, he becomes a target for public criticism and mockery. People are astonished: how could this have happened? Is this authentic? Is this real?
Only after the film's premiere at the 2010 Venice Film Festival did Casey Affleck admit that I’m Still Here was essentially “a piece of performance art” rather than a documentary – and interestingly enough, he refused to call it a hoax (Wise, 2010). But then how can this film be defined exactly, and what was its purpose? Calling it “a piece of performance art” surely seems to be an understatement, since the performer in this case managed to stick to his performance everywhere in public life for a whopping 18 months. In doing so, Phoenix successfully confused first the media and later the audience of his film.
This mass confusion seems hard to reconcile with the concept of a post-truth era as articulated by, amongst others, Ralph Keyes (2004): deception has become a modern way of life and as the boundaries between truth and lies have started to be blurry, lies increasingly become viewed as more acceptable. In the case of I’m Still Here, however, it seemed very important for people to find out the truth about the film. Why? Was it something about how Affleck and Phoenix presented their piece that made the audience expect truth and authenticity? Did the audience feel betrayed?
In this article, I want to explore the mass confusion that Phoenix and Affleck managed to ignite with their piece. How can we explain the effect a film has on its audience when the boundaries between truth and fiction are purposefully made unclear? By analysing the content and the form of I'm Still Here and comparing it to various forms of film, we can achieve a better understanding of its purpose and its effects.
Understanding the message
First, let's take a closer look at the film itself. How can we interpret this film and its purpose? Why was it made and what was the message Phoenix and Affleck were trying to bring across?
We may already have an explanation in one of the first scenes of the film:
“I’m just, like, fucking stuck in this ridiculous, like, self-imposed, fucking prison of, uhm, characterization, you know, and it happened to me young”
(Affleck & Phoenix, 2010, 0:03:13). Here, Phoenix explains how from a young age, he had experienced the characterization of himself as emotional, intense, and complicated, all perpetuated by “them”. He describes a chicken-egg scenario: did this happen because the media responded to his personality, or was this character formed through media? Joaquin admits that he had begun to utilize this characterization, and he eventually regretted it. So he agreed to make a documentary as a way to come to terms with himself: “I don’t want to play the character of Joaquin anymore: I want to be whatever I am” (Affleck & Phoenix, 2010, 0:04:03).
So far so good. It seems that this film is meant as an act of protest against media and celebrity culture and its rigid requirements for clear-defined characterizations. The world of mass media and celebrity culture is a world well-known to Phoenix, who debuted as an actor when he was eight years old (Reynolds, 2015). Phoenix is ready to reconnect with his own self again here, away from the personality that he felt forced to adopt by the media. So, as the audience, we are prepared for what is about to come: we are about to see the spectacle of Joaquin Phoenix revealing his "true self".
The masses get to see Joaquin’s transformation and the crowd goes wild: Phoenix is the perfect celebrity scandal.
Then, the truth about Phoenix unravels and, as it turns out, the "true" Joaquin Phoenix is an uncontrolled, unstable, and hot-headed guy whose ego is seemingly severely affected by his celebrity status. After announcing his retirement from acting in 2008 (Child, 2008), he decides to pursue a hip hop career, lacking any indication of talent for making music. He seems to be counting on the support of P-Diddy, a long-established authority in the field, who accuses everyone who dares to get in Phoenix's way of hurting Phoenix’s feelings and not taking him seriously. Phoenix soon stops taking care of himself, he turns into a scruffy guy, and everywhere he goes, he takes his new personality with him. Then, a climax is reached when Phoenix appears on David Letterman’s Late Show in 2009. Suddenly, the masses get to see Joaquin’s transformation and the crowd goes wild: Phoenix is the perfect celebrity scandal. He is mocked and imitated by many colleagues, co-celebrities, TV show hosts, and other public personalities. The general consensus: the Great Phoenix has lost his mind, and although it is tragic, it also provides a great source of entertainment.
Here, the supposed initial message articulated by Phoenix at the beginning of the film is confirmed: there is no room for deviance in celebrity culture. You have to stay within the boundaries of what is expected from you, or mass media will devour you. The film provides a few brilliant examples to prove this point: an utterly confused Letterman decides to put his initial questions for the non-responsive Phoenix aside and jokingly asks him about his experiences with the Unabomber. At the 2009 Oscars ceremony, Ben Stiller appears on stage dressed as Phoenix, mocking his appearance at Letterman’s. The film shows how Phoenix becomes increasingly miserable and eventually, after a dramatic rap performance where he falls off the stage and gets into a fight with someone in the audience, we see how a defeated Phoenix takes the plane to go to his father, away from the environment from which he had become so estranged.
As these events occur, we see how the crowds and the media are taken over by astonishment: What on earth is happening here? This cannot be real, right?
Who’s in on the joke?
As the audience of the film, we cannot help but feel confused as well: yes, we guess this is real because this is what Phoenix promised us, but he cannot be that extreme in real life, can he? Could this be a hoax? But it all feels so authentic! The uncomfortable feeling increases as more people become “victims” of Phoenix’s violent behaviour. The audience is not granted any resolution at the end of the film: the film ends with Joaquin Phoenix wading through a river, supposedly at his father’s place.
It is this confusion that makes I’m Still Here hard to define. The film is often described as a "mockumentary", a mock-documentary, but this label does not seem very fitting. Mock-documentaries, according to Lipkin, Paget and Roscoe (2006), appropriate the form of a documentary to convincingly create an entirely fictional world, and in doing so, mockumentaries deconstruct the relationship between the image and the referent. Making a mockumentary takes both documentary as style form and documentary practitioners as well as cultural, social, and political icons as objects of parody - in other words: a mockumentary subverts the traditional codes and conventions of documentaries to bring across its message. Built on these principles, mockumentaries can be effectively used to express concern about current issues and to draw attention to the nature of media representation.
For this construction to be effective, however, the mockumentary depends on another requirement: a contract with a knowing audience. It requires the audience to be in on the joke to appreciate the humour as well as the social and political critique that is expressed (Lipkin et al., 2006). According to Lipkin and colleagues (2006), the contract between the director and the knowing audience is what distinguishes mock-documentary from hoax – which I’m Still Here is not, according to Casey Affleck. As it turns out, however, I’m Still Here is not based on a contract like this: rather, the film purposefully holds back the information necessary for the audience to be in on the joke. So, rather than appealing to the understanding of the audience to bring across its message, the film tears apart the concept of (mock-)documentary, leaving the audience in a state of disorientation and unease. A hostile approach like this is conveniently described as deconstruction mock-documentary by Lipkin and his colleagues: it hopes to ignite the critique of the audience. This is an approach that draws heavily on the post-documentary cultural movement: a cultural movement in which many conventional elements of the documentary continue to develop, but in a setting that is radically changed (Corner, 2002).
Corner (2002) gives the example of Big Brother as a construction that is hard to define in terms of "tele-reality". He argues that Big Brother might be placed within the category of documentary, but adds that Big Brother has given up on the traditional conventions and contradictions of documentaries:
“Instead, Big Brother operates its claims to the real within a fully managed artificiality, in which almost everything that might be deemed to be true about what people do and say is necessarily and obviously predicated on the larger contrivance of them being there in front of the camera in the first place.” (Corner, 2002, p. 256)
Like many reality series, Big Brother aims at providing a representation of reality, but with an emphasis on the personal stories and backgrounds of the candidates. To convincingly represent the "personal" in documentaries, however, the use of many in-depth interviews and sometimes part-dramatization is usually required (Corner, 2002). This threatens the traditional, social notion of documentary, which is commonly held to be concerned with depicting the real and authentic on-screen and thus deserves the label of "non-fiction" (Lipkin et al., 2006; Corner, 2002). According to Corner (2002), Big Brother solves this problem by building its own "social": it creates an environment suitable for the "personal" to reveal itself. In this way, the living space of the candidates is also their performance space.
As viewers, we cannot help but question the authenticity of I’m Still Here almost constantly.
These developments fit into the framework of post-documentary culture. First of all, Corner (2002) argues that the diversion of documentary has become too extensive to allow for a single, minimal, generic identity of documentary: in post-documentary culture, it is harder to recognize a documentary due to the increased extensive borrowing from non-documentary styles. Secondly, these developments have created room for a performative, playful element in documentary: in Big Brother, the living space now provides a performative opportunity. Finally, Corner observes that there has likely been a shift in the range of cognitive and affective investments that people make in audio-visual documentation: he signals an emphasis on social knowledge and emotional experiences that developed over the last two decades.
The comparison with Big Brother is interesting here because a comparison with reality television was drawn by Phoenix himself as well. In an interview with David Letterman in 2010, which took place just after the truth concerning the status of I’m Still Here was revealed, Phoenix elaborated on the idea behind the film. He explained that he and Affleck wanted to make a work that felt authentic. He continues:
“I started watching a lot of reality shows and I was amazed that people believed them, that they called them ‘reality’. I thought the only reason why is because it’s billed as being real and the people use their own names.'' (Menorenodutt, 2010, 01:57)
So, it seemed that Affleck and Phoenix heavily borrowed from post-documentary culture in the process of creating the film. However, where the performative element was defined by clear spatial and temporal limits in Big Brother, the performative element in I’m Still Here was never as clearly defined. For 18 months, Phoenix remained in character whenever he would appear in public. Affleck called the film “a piece of performance art”, but after how long does art become reality? And what is being performed in this film? Could this be a performative documentary?
According to Stella Bruzzi (2006), “the performative documentary uses performance within a non-fiction context to draw attention to the impossibilities of authentic documentary representation” (p.185). The performative documentary holds a different notion of truth: it acknowledges that documentaries are constructed and, at heart, always artificial. Therefore, Bruzzi argues that every documentary is, essentially, performative, for it depends on a negotiation between the filmmaker and reality. Similarly, Big Brother negotiates with reality by turning the living space into the performance space in order to let the "personal" out. However, according to Bruzzi, the performance element in the performative documentary is often an alienating and distancing device, rather than one that allows for identification. Its purpose is to raise questions about the authenticity and spontaneity of the documentary: we know that the camera is an inevitable intrusion in the situation we have become the witnesses of.
And indeed, as viewers, we cannot help but question the authenticity of I’m Still Here almost constantly. It makes the film a rather uncomfortable watch: it is as if we can never be fully in the know as to what is real. This effect is strengthened by the fact that I’m Still Here seems much more than a documentary that happens to provide room for performance to make its point: in this case, we see a man sinking deeper and deeper into crisis. Who would be so heartless as to make a film about that?
Does narrativity define identity?
Intuitively, as viewers, we might feel that this film is “too bad to be true”. Still, we are constantly pushed to doubt our intuition. I would argue that this effect was created by the brilliant way in which Affleck and Phoenix constructed their story. They did not simply deceive their audience by implementing a performative element: rather, they developed a convincing new narrative for Phoenix. Phoenix managed to play out this narrative for 18 months, allowing it to become his identity – or at least, in the eyes of the media and later, the audience.
After I’m Still Here was released, it became clear that Phoenix had not become his narrative.
Still, it was not entirely convincing: something did not seem quite right. Here, we find ourselves at the conflict described by Galen Strawson (2004), who argues against narrativity – the idea that we see and experience our lives as a story – as a foundation for our identity. Strawson (2004) describes two popular claims that hold narrativity to be: 1) our identity, since we become our self-constructed autobiographical narrative; and 2) a basic condition for making sense of our lives. The implication that we are defined by our narrative misses the point of what it means to live a good life, according to Strawson. It overlooks the complexity of life and time: it is not true that there is just one good way for human beings to experience their being in time. He distinguishes two types of self-experience: diachronic and episodic experience. "Diachronics" naturally figure themselves “as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future” (Strawson, 2004, p.430). They have a natural – but not necessary - tendency to look upon their lives as defined by narrative. In contrast, "Episodics" do not identify with these clear notions of being in the past and the future, even though they are aware of the long-term continuity that makes them a whole human being. Episodics are much less likely to see their lives in terms of narrativity. Severe misunderstanding is common between these two types of self-expression. Diachronics frequently regard the Episodic life as chilling, void of meaning, and inauthentic.
Here, we can see that there seems to be a norm of defining one’s life as a narrative. It is not surprising, then, that people were confused when they were confronted with Phoenix’s performance. In the first place, the new narrative seemed odd and conflicting with the previous narrative of Phoenix’s identity. We have to keep in mind that in this context, the narrative identity that we know of Phoenix has always been a public one. By looking at his public life story, people have tried to make sense of the ‘true identity’ of Joaquin Phoenix. Suddenly, there was a radical twist in the coherent public life story of Phoenix, and it stunned people, leading them to the question: this is not real, is it? The convincingly long performance by Phoenix, however, forbade them to get rid of their doubt: as the months went by, it became less likely that it was all fake, all a prank. Performance seemingly transformed into identity. Secondly, after I’m Still Here was released, it became clear that Phoenix had not become his narrative: it had been mere performance, and all those confused people had been kept in the dark about the joke.
Celebrities, reality and media
Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix took on an enormous risk with the production of I’m Still Here. In an interview with The Telegraph, Affleck admitted that he had put all his money in the production of the film and almost went bankrupt. Giving up, however, was not an option, since it would likely severely damage Phoenix’s career (Lambie, 2011). Furthermore, the film was a commercial flop, despite all the attention that Phoenix’s performance generated; and although the review scores have gone up somewhat since its release, they remain relatively low. On Metacritic, the weighted average score of the film, based on the reviews of 33 critics is a meagre 48 out of 100. Its average rating on Rotten Tomatoes is a 5.48 out of ten. This rating is accompanied by a “Critic’s Consensus” stating: “As unkempt and inscrutable as Joaquin Phoenix himself, I'm Still Here raises some interesting questions about its subject, as well as the nature of celebrity, but it fails to answer many of them convincingly” (Rotten Tomatoes, n.d.).
I am not sure which questions I’m Still Here “failed to answer convincingly.” To me, the low ratings seem to indicate that this film is hard to watch for many as they find it hard to accept that they are not in on the joke. Viewers are put in an uncomfortable position as they are confronted with complex questions about the real. From my personal experience, I can say that these feelings are hard to push aside even when you are already in the know: if this is not the true Joaquin Phoenix, who is it then? Was it all a performance? Which elements are real? I believe this touches the core of the critique that Affleck and Phoenix tried to bring across. There is little room for deviance in celebrity culture: we like celebrities to remain true to their character, but at the same time, the media plays an enormous role in the process of characterization.
Media has the power to construct a narrative as if it were a true reflection of reality, even when this is not the case. We trust this authority to make sense of our reality, and we get very uncomfortable when this authority is tested: arguably, we would rather believe a fake story provided by the same authority. I’m Still Here is an appeal to critical thinking, and similarly to its subject, it does not allow for a clear-cut definition. Instead, maybe we should look at ourselves and come up with our own interpretation of what this work could be.
Affleck, C. (Director and Writer), & Phoenix, J. (Writer). (2010). I’m Still Here [Motion Picture]. United States: Magnolia Pictures.
Bruzzi, S. (2006). The Performative Documentary [excerpt]. The New Documentary (pp. 185-206). 2nd ed. London: Routledge.
Child, B. (2008). Two-time Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix quits acting. The Guardian.
Corner, J. (2002). Performing the Real: Documentary Diversions. Television and New Media, 2(3), 255-269. doi:10.1177/152747640200300302
Keyes, R. (2004). The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life. [Abstract]. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Lambie, R. (2011). I’m Still Here: a brave, bizarre experiment in filmmaking?
Menorenodutt. (2010, September 22). Joaquin Phoenix Return visit on David Letterman show (sept 22 - 2010) HD 1080p [Video File].
Reynolds, S. (2015) When he was Leaf: The early roles of Joaquin Phoenix. Digital Spy.
Rotten Tomatoes. (n.d.). I’m Still Here.
Strawson, G. (2004). Against Narrativity. Ratio 17(4), 428-52.
Wise, D. (2010). How we finally got to the truth about Joaquin Phoenix's I'm Still Here. The Guardian.