McGinnis: ‘I’m Still Here’ hoax raises more questionsWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
As Robin Williams said in reference to the late Andy Kaufman, “Andy made himself the premise and the rest of the world was the punch line.”
I almost called Kaufman a “comedian,” but was comedy really the point? He was a gifted performer, no doubt, and crafted many hilarious moments during his time on stage. But just as often, his goal was much more complex and incendiary than that. Making people laugh was easy. Making them puzzled — even to the point of hate — and then making them laugh, now there’s a challenge.
Kaufman’s performances borrowed much from the wrestlers he lampooned and emulated in his work. Whether they love or loathe me, they’re passionate about me, and that’s enough. But beyond even his stage persona, the work he did offstage was even more puzzling and eccentric.
He created a loathsome lounge singer persona named Tony Clifton, who would insult the audience to the point of riots. Then, he secretly passed the character off to his friend and writer, Bob Zmuda, who played Clifton from then on, though everyone thought it was still Kaufman. Why? Maybe just because it fooled us.
When he was “injured” in a wrestling match, he spent time in a legitimate hospital recovering from his fake wounds. He created make-believe brawls in clubs and on television shows. His scams became so frequent that when Kaufman was dying of cancer, some people laughed, assuming it was yet another joke. He became the comic who cried wolf.
I’ve thought about Kaufman a lot during the past few days, as the latest chapters of the Joaquin Phoenix saga have played out. For two years, we have watched this gifted performer-turned-wannabe-rapper seemingly self-destructing. From the heights of Hollywood’s A-list to the depths of pity and scorn, wrapped in a swath of arrogance and ludicrous facial hair. His memorably awkward 2009 appearance on David Letterman cemented the idea that he had lost his mind. People viewed Phoenix’s public behavior the same way people view a car accident. We shouldn’t look, but we couldn’t help it.
But there was always doubt. Were we being fooled? Was the wool being pulled over our eyes, in classic Kaufman fashion? Casey Affleck, it was admitted, was following Phoenix everywhere with a camera crew, filming a documentary of his transition from movies to … uh … music(?). Was this a scam, an elaborate hoax?
Affleck’s film, “I’m Still Here,” opened Sept. 10 in limited release, to mixed reviews and audience response. When confronted by the filmed evidence, opinion was equally mixed on the question of its authenticity. If it’s real, some said, it’s a sad and terribly morbid film. If it’s fake, what’s the point?
Finally, speculation and controversy crystallized into admissions and, in some cases, outrage. Director Affleck, claiming to be stunned at the anger his film had engendered, admitted in an interview with The New York Times this week that it was fiction — all of it. Or, rather, performance art. “It’s a terrific performance, it’s the performance of his career,” Affleck said of the two-year pseudo-deception.
As if to bolster the point, Phoenix has made public appearances recently, looking clean shaven and back-to-normal. He will appear once more on Letterman Sept. 22, his first post-supposed-meltdown appearance — one of which, Letterman writer Bill Scheft admitted in an interview with nuvo.net, was indeed all an act, and one which Dave was in on.
But if the past two years of Joaquin Phoenix’s public life was indeed a grand charade, the larger question remains — why? What was the point of Phoenix and Affleck’s plan? Just to make the movie? The same probably could have been accomplished without Phoenix playing his role so brazenly in public, wrecking an image that he must now work to repair. And if the “performance” was to create intrigue in the documentary, why come out now, and seemingly destroy that intrigue while the movie is just opening?
Maybe the point was an analysis and satire of the way the media and public view celebrity self-destruction. We gawked at Joaquin, just as we gawked at Britney and others. We love to build people up, and we love to tear them down. Maybe there was a more subtle plan in place with Affleck’s film, but it ended up spiraling out of their control, leaving Phoenix in the lurch, but still oddly committed to his cause. Or maybe they did it just for the hell of it. We, as an audience, as with much conceptual art, are left to debate the value of what Affleck and Phoenix did — and whether it should have been done at all.
Joaquin made himself the premise. Time will tell what the punch line really is.
E-mail Jeff at PopGoesJeff@gmail.com.