After months of speculation (most of it on this website, it seems), director Casey Affleck has finally fessed up about the truth (or fiction) of his “documentary” about actor Joaquin Phoenix. “It’s a terrific performance,” Affleck told The New York Times. “It’s the performance of his career.” I certainly agree; in my review of the film for IFC.com, I speculated that while many scenes looked staged, some seemed too real to be fake, writing “if Phoenix is acting… he is giving one the greatest and most fearless performances of all time.”
According to Affleck now, nearly everything in the movie is staged, even the supposed home movies of Phoenix as a child in Panama (a possibility I’m pretty sure I raised during my discussion of the film with David Chen on The /Filmcast). But as recently as the Venice Film Festival earlier this month, Affleck continued to assert the film’s authenticity. At a press conference in Venice Affleck said, “I can tell you, there’s no hoax. It never entered my mind until other people commented on the movie.” Today in The Times he carefully amended that statement. “I never intended to trick anybody,” he said. “The idea of a quote, hoax, unquote, never entered my mind.” In retrospect, Affleck was clearly pulling a non-denial denial. Even though “I’m Still Here” is fiction it’s not a “hoax,” because to him the movie speaks to a larger truth about celebrity and fame.
Of course, Affleck didn’t bother correcting people’s misperceptions either. Neither did the film’s distributor, Magnolia, whose publicity materials sell the film as a documentary. Their description of “I’m Still Here on MagPictures.com still begins “The directorial debut of Oscar-nominated actor Casey Affleck, ‘I’m Still Here’ is a striking portrayal of a tumultuous year in the life of internationally acclaimed actor Joaquin Phoenix. With remarkable access, ‘I’m Still Here’ follows the Oscar-nominee as he announces his retirement from a successful film career in the fall of 2008 and sets off to reinvent himself as a hip hop musician.” Does that explicitly say the movie is a documentary? No. Does it strongly imply it? Absolutely.
In an article I wrote last week theorizing about the potential levels of reality within “I’m Still Here,” I examined the larger implications of the film if it was indeed fictional. Looking back at that piece, I’m reminded of all the things in the movie that didn’t look staged: pretending to snort cocaine is easy, pretending to puke as much as Phoenix appears to puke is not. So while I’m not shocked by this news by any means, I’m still impressed (and slightly unsettled) by Phoenix’s dedication to this character and to his and Affleck’s ability to pull the wool over so many people’s eyes.
The question now becomes why Affleck chose to make this announcement now, while the film is still in release. I imagine the fact that Phoenix is scheduled to return to Letterman’s show on September 22 had something to do with it, since the actor would either have to come clean then or continue the deception. But my guess is “I’m Still Here”‘s tepid box office played a bigger role. The film earned $96,000 in about twenty theaters in its opening weekend, according to Box Office Mojo. That wasn’t even good enough to crack the top ten list of the highest per screen averages for the weekend. And while I was absolutely fascinated by “I’m Still Here,” I couldn’t begrudge anyone who felt like the movie wasn’t their cup of tea. If people believed it was real — and Affleck, Phoenix, and company made very little effort to dissuade them of that belief — then they were essentially paying twelve dollars for the privilege of watching someone snort their life up their nose and then flush it down the toilet. Who could blame someone for not being interested in that? Ironically, a movie designed as a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of stardom and celebrity might wind up as a cautionary tale about how to market movies that blur the line between fiction and nonfiction.
Does this news make the film less interesting? I’m not sure, but it certainly makes the conversations you can have after the film less fun. In my review of “I’m Still Here,” I wrote “with his first feature as a director, Affleck has made one of the most convincing and interesting movie pranks ever (that is, if he didn’t make one of the most exploitative and morally questionable documentaries ever).” I suspect this movie will eventually be forgotten as a weird footnote on Phoenix’s career, and I wish Affleck’s supposed “subtle clues” designed to “provide hints of his real intention” were a bit less subtle. But I stand by my earlier comments. Affleck and Phoenix pulled off a hoax (sorry Casey, that’s what it is) on a remarkable scale. Despite Affleck’s comments, their achievements are still there.