Friday, September 17th, 2010

The Genius Of Joaquin Phoenix And Casey Affleck

He sure is!The revelation by director Casey Affleck that his documentary I'm Still Here, which purportedly chronicles the mental breakdown of actor Joaquin Phoenix, is in fact a piece of "performance art," has been met with both outrage and ill-humored dismissal. The poorly-reviewed film, detractors note, was viewed with skepticism and incredulity from the very beginning. That Affleck is only making this admission now, when the full scale of the disaster that the movie has wreaked on Phoenix's career has become apparent, is a cause for deep cynicism and mockery. But should it be?

Leaving aside the widely acknowledged fact that the project was so obviously a hoax from its outset-that this was such a lame and amateur attempt that even small children could see its sorry duplicity and desperate emptiness-let's pretend that Phoenix and Affleck weren't so incredibly incompetent. All great work requires risk, and that is indeed something that Phoenix and Affleck took, even if they were remarkably maladroit in the execution. The mystery of why something works vs. why something fails is the eternal conundrum of the artist. We use the word "formulaic" to describe something tired and predictable, but it also underscores the point that there is no formula for success. If there were, people would use it every time. The fact that Affleck and Phoenix's failure could also be described as "tired and predictable" shows how difficult it is to construct something lasting and believable, particularly when that construction is conducted with the laughable level of effort that Phoenix and Affleck put into it.

Don't we want our artists' reach to exceed their grasp? Wouldn't we rather be given the gift of something timeless that results from a willingness to fall on one's face rather than a strict adherence to playing it safe? The greatest moments in film, theater, literature-any of the arts, really-come from those who were prepared to face the scorn and derision of the crowd because somewhere deep within they had a vision that they were willing to see through to completion. They believed when no one else did. That some of these visions are juvenile and worthless ideas on the world-historical scale of failure that Affleck and Phoenix ushered forth only makes the successes shine that much more brightly. For every purely realized work of genius like Citizen Kane you need to suffer through twenty such epic disasters like I'm Still Here (although the scope of the latter's shocking awfulness is indeed difficult to top).

It's not pretty, but great art rarely is. If we want our leading lights to keep providing us with moments of sheer electricity we need to also allow them the room to fail. I'm Still Here, for all the critical, commercial and existential hatred it has deservedly received, is an important work for that very reason: we need abysmal catastrophes like it to help us recognize what is really worthwhile. In many ways you could say that Phoenix and Affleck are some of the most important artists of their age because they have shown us just how difficult it is to pull something off, especially if you have no talent for the type of creation you are attempting in the first place. They deserve to be recognized as such.

32 Comments / Post A Comment

deepomega (#1,720)

Any film project which leads to posters with type that fucking badass deserves a pass and a thumbs up.

Speedy Gray (#6,451)


This movie is clearly a mean-spirited joke of a failure, and I can't believe anyone ever speculated otherwise. I kind of still want to see it, though.

Did you ever hear of Harmony Korine?

Crantastical (#4,127)

I still picture that kid from Gummo sometimes, sitting in a filthy bathtub and eating spaghetti. What do you think ever happened to him?

KarenUhOh (#19)

Jacob Soloman. In as daring and deadly a career-killing performance as you'll ever see.

And still acting, it seems:

The bathtub spaghetti scene remains as off-putting and nightmarish as any sliced eyeball in celluloid.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Whatever. These hacks can still cash checks.

Wake me when Andy Kaufman stars in Heaven's Gate II.

C_Webb (#855)

If we respect this, do we have to respect James Franco? Because I really don't think I can do that.

gregorg (#30)

I think we need someone [Slate?] to lay out the timeline of the Franco and Phoenix/Affleck projects. They could end up being the dueling banjos of the TMZ generation.

HiredGoons (#603)


SeaBassTian (#281)

The surreal nature of that last season of Roseanne is starting to make sense now, thanks to this post!

David (#192)

I once recieved a haircut remarkably maladroit in the execution that I can now distinguish between the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Will George W. Bush finally confess the his 8 year presidency was performance art.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Jeez Louise Mel Brooks. You wanna see some real performance art, wait'll Roger Ebert starts retaliating for being taken in. He's denutted a few cocksuckers before.

Neopythia (#353)

I was all excited to make the Slate joke.

HiredGoons (#603)

Yet the lesser Phoenix lives.

caw_caw (#5,641)

Not really a surprise that an extremely large number of people, including a lot of quote unquote film critics can't imagine anything beyond the modern celebrity culture that orbits around brand extension and star worship.

The Hollywood machine runs on positive salesmanship and the cult of personality. For a famous actor to do anything that others perceive might jeopardize his career is confusing and scary because it is so outside the norm.

Personally I think the whole thing is funny and astute. It's a document of the ridiculous celebrity culture we live in in 2010. I don't think Joaquin will be sorry he did it in 20 years. The same can't be said for some of his other recent movies.

KarenUhOh (#19)

There's still time for him to produce a doctor's note.

Leon (#6,596)

I'm sure he'll be able to rise of the ashes of this flame-out. (too easy?)

Jason Newstedt (#4,378)

I don't buy it. The "hoax," that is. I seriously believe he wanted to be a hip-hop star as much as Keanu Reeves wanted to be a bad-ass bass player or Jennifer Lopez wanted any kind of talent. Phoenix stuck his dick in the water and found out it was way more difficult than he thought, so he gave up. And what a convenient surrender it was. "Surprise! It was a joke. Now where is that pile of scripts I need to sort through?"

The (now fashionably) comparison to Andy Kaufman has GOT to stop, people. If these two sperm-leftovers weren't able to pull off a simple hoax like this convincingly, then they sure as hell wouldn't be smart enough to emulate someone like Kaufman.

I say Phoenix counted his chickens before they hatched. No matter. The good news is that people are morons and have all the attention span of Ozzy Osbourne. They'll forget about this in the time it takes Joaquin to shave the beard and untangle his hair.

Now I'm just waiting for Billy Bob Thornton to come out and admit The Boxmasters was just a giant "performance piece."

We truly are among greatness. Someone shoot me.

zidaane (#373)

I think it's too early to judge. If Andy Kaufman were as big a star and tried the same, I don't think the perception would be any different. Most of Andy Kaufman's stuff seemed painful real time.

zidaane (#373)

Regarding your 'hoax' theory and whether Joaquin really wanted to be a rap star the exact same could be said of Andy and wrestling. It doesn't really matter.

Jason Newstedt (#4,378)

I think Kaufman wanting to be a wrestler was a bit more obvious, considering his size. Phoenix's situation is more like Kevin Federline's, or a Vanilla Ice comeback. I agree, it doesn't matter. But damn it all if it isn't as fun as watching someone fall on the subway tracks. Will he make it? Is it curtains for this poor bastard? Wait for it…wait for it.

zidaane (#373)

I guess I frame it more as Art and I don't think they thought it would be successful or that Joaquin cared if he was 'accepted' as a rap artist but I'm sure it was just as appealing to him as it was to Andy that there was ambiguity there. I think that's way different than Kfed or Vanilla Ice. Sure, it's a safe construct, but it still took balls. I would argue more than Andy, since he was already coming from outside the fame machine and had nothing to lose.

zidaane (#373)

I should add, I won't watch this for a few years just to give it the proper vintage.

Right. If you never fall down, you're not really pushing the limits, are you?

Parleyview (#7,337)

The artist conceptualizes and fabricates art.
The actor interprets art – two completely different skill sets.
Surplus time and money can cause a silly notion to devolve into a public muddle.

Parleyview (#7,337)

Do love the poster though, good conception and fabrication there…

frabjous (#7,401)

"The secret of genius is never fearing to appear ridiculous." –Richard Brody

Ian Carey (#7,531)

From "I'm Still Here"'s DVD cover: "It's not pretty, but great art rarely is…. an important work." -The Awl

Parleyview (#7,337)

And there is this – From the DVD cover of "I'm Still Here: real diaries of young people who lived during the holocaust"

Diaries read by, Elijah Wood, Joaquin Phoenix (?), and Kate Hudson:
"Inventive and inspired – a masterful documentary" New York Times

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