By this point, we all know that the film was staged: this is not a real breakdown, but rather a very elaborate (and impressive - it'll never happen, but if you ask me, Joaquin Phoenix should be the frontrunner for the Best Actor Oscar) piece of Andy Kaufman-esque performance art. And that's all anyone will talk about in regards to the film. "It's a hoax." "It was all fake." "Who was in on the joke?"
But this isn't important. All documentaries, whether "fake" or "real," aim to do one thing: inform and persuade the viewer. Documentaries exist under the guise that they tell the truth, but in reality its never the truth, just a truth. Films by Michael Moore (Capitalism: A Love Story, Fahrenheit 9/11) and Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) only tell a certain kind of truth, opting not to show the other side of a debate in an effort to convince viewers of their point. Other documentaries claim to present something as it is, but there's always some sort of bias there. Even nature docs, which usually don't have a message that it is trying to get across (The Cove excluded), has questionable veracity: we project what we think the animals are doing or thinking, rather than know what is actually going on (because that would be impossible). Even if I'm Still Here isn't a "legitimate" documentary, the "truth" of the movie still doesn't matter any more than it should in any doc (for a great take on veracity in documentary, check out Orson Welles' sadly underrated F For Fake).
I'm Still Here has a lot to say though about celebrity culture and our, the general public's, obsession with it. Phoenix and director/co-writer Casey Affleck (brother of Ben and brother-in-law of Phoenix) have created something here that is genuinely disturbing, and not just for the onscreen defecation. The film works as a satire on celebrity meltdown's al a Britney Spears, with Phoenix announcing his retirement from acting because he's no longer fulfilled by it, letting go hygiene and starting a failed rap career. This scenario encompasses it all: the meltdown, the actor-turned-musician, the publicity-train-wreck (his film Two Lovers suffered for his performance here). Its a near-perfect send-up of Hollywood narcissism, as Phoenix is never slow to defend his decisions with "this is my life...its what I want," and it never gets any deeper than that. And of course, all of his friends support him in this decision (for the most part). No one close to him tries to stop him and say, "You know, you're ruining your career this way." The film seems to work as a wake-up call to the close friends of people like Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton: get your crap together before its too late.
Some people who could use a helping hand.
But the film's harshest light isn't on celebrities themselves, but on the general public who tracks their every move, particularly the celebrity blogosphere (which The Entertainment Junkie is not a part of, thank you very much). During the end of 2008-beginning of 2009, when all of this was first happening, the reaction to Phoenix's actions was mostly ridicule. He was mocked endlessly at award ceremonies and in late night. People laughed. Critics sneered, and articles debating whether or not it was a hoax became numerous. But then there was the lashings he received: many debated whether or not he deserved this kind of meltdown. Some articles (even from respectable publications) asked if we should even care. There was very little sympathy or support for him; more or less everyone abandoned him at a time when he ostensibly needed it most. So here we are, exposed to just how heartless human nature can be: if this is how we treat someone who we respect when they're at a low point in their life, what's going to happen to those we don't respect? For example, the cast of Jersey Shore will never catch a break, because we collectively will never think of them as anything more than trash. Therefore, with every meltdown, every scandal, every cry for help, we, as a whole, will laugh and ignore them, because to us their celebrities, not people. And that's a truth that can't be ignored.
Unfortunately, all of this will be lost on many moviegoers. If we're only focusing on the reality of the film, which many critics and bloggers are, then the point of the film will be missed. And that's a shame, because its something we could all stand to learn. I'm Still Here is perhaps the most unlikely call for change in years.