Written by: Pat King, Special to CC2K
Pat King turns his keen eye on two movies that examine our obsession with celebrity and celebrities.
I was hung over this morning, so Casey Affleck’s new shocku-mockumentary, I’m Still Here, seemed like an appropriate diversion. Affleck admitted late September that the movie was a work of fiction made to look like a documentary. The movie’s about the year following Joaquin Phoenix’s announcement that he was quitting acting to pursue his real passion, rap music. Even if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you’ve probably seen excerpts from it at various times last year when Joaquin Phoenix appeared on David Letterman or “leaked” concert footage where he jumped off the stage to attack a “heckler” in the audience. The Letterman performance is the most famous of the publicity stunts. It was the first time many of us saw him in character, though pretty much no one knew that he was just acting a part at the time. Phoenix appeared in a black Beatles-suit, his hair long and shaggy, his face covered in an unkempt Unabomber-beard. He looked like he was super stoned and answered Letterman in clipped, terse sentences. The boy looked like he could use some rehab.
In an interview with Roger Ebert on September 22nd, Casey Affleck rejected the word “hoax” and insisted that the whole thing was an “act.” Publicity whoring was never discussed.
Manufacturing a fake controversy, like, I don’t know, releasing a movie that looks like a documentary and then a little while later, when the buzz dies down a little, admitting that it was all fake, means that people will keep talking about your film even if the thing sucks. Talk about hedging your bets. But concentrating on the publicity stunt ultimately misses a larger point: the film itself hasn’t changed. And, ultimately, it remains a film about a narcissist drug addict who verbally abuses his assistants, whines, throws tantrums and generally acts like a dick to everyone around him. I mean, I get that the movie is supposed to say something or other about celebrity culture. There’s something in there about our desire to throw famous folks to the lions as soon as they show weakness or personality flaws. But the Joaquin Phoenix character is just so cruel and solipsistic that the larger issues become peripheral, mere background noise.
Look, I’m not against drug use, or even abuse, if that’s your thing. I’ve got no room to judge, having put plenty of unwholesome stuff into my body over the years. I even enjoy movies about drug addicts every now and then. My favorite is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s a drug movie that also manages to say some interesting things about American society. The reason the movie works is simple: you like the Hunter S. Thompson character. He’s funny and mostly harmless. And even near the end of the movie, when he and his friend Dr. Gonzo have basically burned out their wicks and are well into the dark side of their drug trip, Thompson never forgets his moral center. “Buy the ticket, take the ride,” he says. “No sympathy for the devil.” Indeed. And, I might add, a good belly laugh is far preferable to repeated kicks in the balls.
I have to admit that I was actually able to care about Phoenix’s character for maybe a minute or so. Toward the end of the movie, there’s a montage of video clips where everyone from Jimmy Kimmel to a CNN anchor take pot shots at the guy. This was when almost everyone thought he was having an actual meltdown. And it’s a good thing he wasn’t. Having to see this kind of stuff every day could drive a person to suicide if they were in the middle of a legit crisis.
But then the whole thing deflates in the next scene, when we see Phoenix berating one of his assistants again. No sympathy for the devil indeed.
If you really want to have a better understanding of America’s relationship with celebrity culture, there’s a far superior movie out and if you have HBO you should definitely check it out. It’s a documentary called Teenage Paparazzo. Directed by Adrian Grenier, who plays Vince on Entourage, it’s the story of Grenier’s friendship with a fourteen year old kid named Austin Visschedyk. Austin is a professional paparazzo, having already sold pictures to recognizable gossip rags. Grenier follows Austin late into the night as he waits outside nightclubs and suchlike, hoping for Paris Hilton or some other tabloid star to make an appearance. Along with Austin’s story, Grenier interviews sociologists and journalists who study celebrity culture. Grenier himself isn’t sure about where he stands on paparazzi, and the people he interviews take all sorts of positions on it. Paris Hilton comes off as surprisingly humble in the movie, as she explains that while she’s annoyed with the cameras sometimes, she wouldn’t be famous without them. Lewis Black doesn’t have any sympathy for the celebrities being photographed. This is what they wanted, and now that they have it, they want to complain about it. Cue patented Lewis Black exasperated headshake.
Tension begins to build as it becomes clear that Austin isn’t satisfied with just photographing the famous. He wants to be a celebrity himself. And he has the opportunity. His age and good looks make him unique among the celebrity-photo-stalkers. He is featured in magazine articles and even offered his own reality TV show. The problem is that Austin really is a talented photographer. His nature photography is brilliant, almost inspired. This conflict moves the second act of the film forward. What’s going to happen to this kid? Will he become an artist or give in to his narcissism?
Teenage Paparazzo is a fun movie. It has heart and discusses its subject in a mostly mature manner. I’m Still Here is a publicity stunt and a tantrum. It’s a shame the movie’s getting so much attention.