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.