Few mockumentaries have received as much media attention as I’m Still Here, although this is largely due to the manner in which the press was coerced into participating in the project: in late 2008, movie star Joaquin Phoenix announced that he was retiring from acting to pursue a music career, a statement that was swiftly reported by entertainment news programmes and the celebrity-obsessed blogosphere. Phoenix received Academy Award nominations for his performances as a Roman emperor in Gladiator (2000) and as country singer Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (2005), while maintaining independent credentials through his frequent collaborations with writer-director James Gray. If he had yet to achieve megastar status - an increasingly unrealistic expectation for any actor in a movie-making era dominated by special effects-heavy franchises - Phoenix was certainly well-known enough for his ‘retirement’ to fuel the rumour mill: was this a very public breakdown, or a hoax, or a genuine desire to try a different form of self-expression? The media further speculated on the actor’s professional shift when Phoenix performed his latest rap material at a Las Vegas club in early 2009, with his friend and brother-in-law Casey Affleck filming his set for a documentary project that would be titled I’m Still Here. Writing for the Chicago Sun Times in September 2010, Robert Ebert described the film as ‘a sad and painful documentary’, dealing with a ‘gifted actor who apparently by his own decision has brought desolation upon his head’. Ebert also noted ‘subtle signs’ that I’m Still Here may be ‘part of an elaborate hoax’.
The suspicions of Ebert and other critics were proved correct when Affleck explained the intentions of his collaboration with Phoenix in a number of interviews that followed the theatrical release of I’m Still Here; they wanted to explore the nature of celebrity, commenting on the relationship that both audiences and journalists have with stars in the era of new media and reality television. What their mockumentary actually observes is a breakdown in such relations, as Phoenix becomes increasingly isolated due to intense media attention. He begins the film by claiming to feel trapped in ‘a self-imposed prison of characterisation’ due to the mass perception that he is ’emotional, intense and complicated’, an identity that he concedes to creating through his choice of roles but one that he feels has been exaggerated through media pigeonholing. As he no longer wants to ‘play the character of Joaquin’, Phoenix abandons his acting career to record rap music, with Sean Combs producing his debut album and live performances scheduled in Las Vegas. Industry commentators do not wait to listen to any material before passing judgment, labelling this choice as career suicide, while ridiculing the ‘former’ actor’s increasingly unkempt appearance as Phoenix goes from svelte leading man to bearded rapper with noticeable weight gain. He becomes a laughing stock in Hollywood, alienates his ‘general assistant’ Antony (Spacehog guitarist Antony Langdon) and gets into a fight while performing to an audience that is more interested in capturing a falling star with their camera phones than in listening to his lyrics.
In retrospect, it is easy to see that I’m Still Here is a ruse, albeit a well-conceived one: scenes of Phoenix ordering hookers and snorting drugs are calculated self-destruction staples that are designed to shock, and interactions with other performers often feel contrived. Ben Stiller visits Phoenix at his Los Angeles home to pitch Greenberg (2010), suggesting that the ‘retired’ actor should play the supporting role eventually undertaken by Rhys Ifans, only to be accused of ‘doing Ben Stiller’ by Phoenix, who no longer cares for Hollywood pleasantries. With comedy star Stiller cast in his familiar straight man role to Phoenix’s imploding artist and dialogue that references Stiller’s earlier success There’s Something about Mary (1998), their meeting plays more like a scene from Curb Your Enthusiasm than a genuine conversation. The centrepiece of I’m Still Here is not Phoenix’s rap performance - we hear some of his material, but never a full track - but his now legendary appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman to promote his ‘final’ film Two Lovers (2008). It’s an exercise in awkward humour as Phoenix seems to be more interested in the gum in his mouth than discussing his work, only becoming slightly engaged when Letterman brings up the subject of his rap music. ‘I’d like to come on the show and perform,’ offers Phoenix, only for Letterman to deliver the put-down, ‘That seems unlikely’. Phoenix manages a few chuckles at the expense of the host, but Letterman gets the last laugh - ‘I’ll come to your house and chew gum.’
Phoenix disappears into ‘character’ as he becomes distanced from those around him due to media ridicule. Although he turns to music to escape the artifice of acting, Phoenix finds the rap world to be similar to Hollywood: Sean Combs states that both movies and music revolve around the circus of production, while the audience that Phoenix is trying to reach may change, but reactions to his celebrity status do not. He eventually retreats from public view, travelling to Panama to spend time with his father and, in the parting shot, disappears underwater while swimming. The three-word title of I’m Still Here recalls not only D.A. Pennebaker‘s classic Bob Dylan documentary Dont Look Back (1967) but also Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There (2007), a fictionalised deconstruction of Dylan’s ever-changing persona, with media reaction to Phoenix as rap star exemplifying a celebrity culture that now forbids such multi-faceted behaviour. In this respect, the process of making I’m Still Here had more impact than the completed film as it received a brief theatrical run that grossed a mere $568,963 worldwide, suggesting that the cultural and economic value of artists or celebrities as ‘public commodities’ is greater than that of their actual work. A clean-shaven, slimmed-down Phoenix would return to the Letterman show to discuss the film, thereby re-establishing his movie star identity through the promotional process. I’m Still Here is technically a mockumentary, but the manner in which its subject unravels due to media scrutiny makes it a painfully real portrait of a creative spirit in crisis.