Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Generation X Goes Back to the Future 4: I'm Still Here

OK, once in awhile something pops up that really says 'new Millennium.'  I think Casey Affleck's new mocudrama/performance art film, I'm Still Here, falls into that categoryThe New York Times is reporting that Gen Xers Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix have pulled off the first major reality-fiction bait-and-switch in pop culture of the Teens decade.  As I mentioned in yesterday's post about Reality Horror, part of the problem with criss-crossing the lines between reality and fiction is the audience's increasingly cynical refusal to suspend disbelief.  How do you make a film real enough that the audience believes it's real, only to discover it's not?

It turns out that Phoenix lived for almost two whole years in the spotlight as an addled basketcase celebrity - in a real-fake take-off of all the real addled basketcase celebrities!  And even when those in the know claimed it was a hoax, no one believed them. Needless to say, the Boomer press hates the film, and they are remarkably literal-minded about it.  The critics don't see the huge, patented Gen X irony at work, even when they get the press release explaining it carefully.  Wow.  Phoenix's appearance on David Letterman in 2009 as a half-mad, bearded drugged-up lunatic was what Affleck is calling "a terrific performance, it’s the performance of his career.”

Phoenix playing himself going off the rails on Letterman (Feb. 11, 2009). Image: CBS.

Further from the NYT: "[Affleck] was speaking of Mr. Phoenix’s two-year portrayal of himself — on screen and off — as a bearded, drug-addled aspiring rap star, who, as Mr. Affleck tells it, put his professional life on the line to star in a bit of 'gonzo filmmaking' modeled on the reality-bending journalism of Hunter S. Thompson.

I’m Still Here was released ... [September 10] by Magnolia Pictures to scathing reviews by a number of critics, including Roger Ebert, who wrote that the film was 'a sad and painful documentary that serves little useful purpose other than to pound another nail into the coffin.'

'The reviews were so angry,' said Mr. Affleck, who attributed much of the hostility to his own long silence about a film that left more than a few viewers wondering what was real — The drugs? The hookers? The childhood home-movie sequences in the beginning? — and what was not. Virtually none of it was real. Not even the opening shots, supposedly of Mr. Phoenix and his siblings swimming in a water hole in Panama. That, Mr. Affleck said, was actually shot in Hawaii with actors, then run back and forth on top of an old videocassette recording of Paris, Texas to degrade the images.

'I never intended to trick anybody,' said Mr. Affleck, an intense 35-year-old who spoke over a meat-free, cheese-free vegetable sandwich on Thursday. 'The idea of a quote, hoax, unquote, never entered my mind.'  Still, he acknowledged that Mr. Letterman was not in on the joke when Mr. Phoenix, on Feb. 11, 2009, seemed to implode his own career by showing up in character as a mumbling, aimless star gone wrong."

Further comment from the NYT article shows that the actor and his agent played their mockumentary with straight faces. They "wanted audiences to experience the film’s narrative, about the disintegration of celebrity, without the clutter of preconceived notions. So ... [Phoenix] said little in interviews. 'We wanted to create a space,' ... [Affleck] said. 'You believe what’s happening is real.' As the film progresses, Mr. Affleck explained, subtle cues were supposed to provide hints of his real intention. Camera techniques, extremely raw at the beginning, become more sophisticated as the film goes on, for instance. 'There were multiple takes, these are performances,' Mr. Affleck said of unsettling sequences in which Mr. Phoenix appears to snort drugs, consort with hookers, and hunt to the ground an assistant who has betrayed him to the press — again, mostly actors. But the movie never quite showed its hand. 'There was no wink, Mr. Affleck said."

In so doing, Affleck and Phoenix have perhaps managed to capture one of the quintessential Gen X experiences.  The film is a portrait of that cohort's deer-in-the-headlights introspection and veiled faith that higher values will vindicate the entire generation.  Obviously, Affleck and Phoenix placed art above all else in this endeavour - above Hollywood, above the media, above celebrity, above their personal reputations. At the same time, they were obliged to conceal their true characters and motives to find that gnostic release.  They actually had to play 'slackers' in order to prove they weren't slackers.

Director Casey Affleck with actor Joaquin Phoenix in character, as an alternate version of himself. Image: REX.

Another report (here at Statepress): "The vast majority of Ebert’s criticisms of the film are factually based in Phoenix’s behavior and attitude and the fact that he is a 'gifted actor who apparently by his own decision has brought desolation upon his head.' But now that the curtain has been lifted, it should be great, right? The critics think not. The furiously bad reviews are not indicative of the inherent quality of the documentary itself. People are upset by feeling [misled] and confused. After all, everyone is sick and tired of politicians taking advantage of us — so God forbid an actor, well, acts. Ebert commented ... 'If this film turns out to still be part of an elaborate hoax, I’m going to be seriously pissed.' That seems strikingly contradictory and close-minded. It’s almost as if Mr. Ebert is too old and cynical to enjoy new movies. Evidently he missed Affleck’s point about subjective reality: fact or fiction – it’s irrelevant. Getting caught up in objective ‘truth’ is a constricted, surface-level way of interpreting art. ... As John Horn of the L.A. Times acknowledged, 'the [potential] [movie] buyers did agree on one thing: They’d never seen anything like it.'”

Once we get past the reality-fiction problem engendered by the Tech Revolution, this Statepress writer is right - the next problem of the Millennium is objectivity and subjectivity.  From the 1960s to the 1990s, the Boomers built a lot of capital and a lot of power based on their penchant for labelling themselves, others, things, people, groups.  Then they relativized that reality, splitting objective truths from subjective experiences. They devalued the former and made the latter - which they chose to define using Postmodern tenets - their personal preserve.  In other words, they claimed that there was no reality except subjective truths, and then they laid claim to the right to define subjective truths as they saw fit, while discounting the possibility of any outside, objective reference point that might debunk this classic narcissistic trope.

Boomers are now witnessing the fruits of their labours.  It's amazing that when presented with the results of their thinking - that the distinctions between fact and fiction, and between the objective and subjective, have become irrelevant - they respond with irritation or anger.  So much rode on their categorization of subjective truths, that they dared not acknowledge (even to themselves) how strictly they clung to objective reality to make their subjective categorizations work.  It never occurred to them in their youthful 60s' iconoclasm and 80s' label-churning-politically-correct manifestos, that everything they did critically depended upon the continued existence of objective standards and establishment values they were criticizing.  Now those standards and values are gone; without realizing it, Boomers destroyed all the boundaries between fiction and reality.  Now everyone has to swim in the surreal soup that's left - including them.

Phoenix on Letterman, publicizing the film (Sept. 22, 2010). Image: AP Photo/CBS, Jeffrey R. Staab.

On September 22, Phoenix returned to Letterman.  It was a superficially friendly interview, in which Dave seemed to not mind the hoax, claimed not to be in on it, and Phoenix apologized.  And of course, we don't know if this interview was staged and they were performing in both interviews for our benefit.  Phoenix said that he took his inspiration from Reality TV, which is all staged. He said he was struck by how poor the acting was, but people believe it's real because the actors use their real names.  He and Affleck created a character with the name 'Joaquin Phoenix' - and everyone believed that character was the real Phoenix, because they have the same name.  See a Washington Post article on the interview here.

It looked at a couple of points like trademark Boomer-Gen X bristles showed. Letterman asked Phoenix if he, Dave, was made to look like an idiot.  Phoenix said the movie, which included the first interview, made Letterman look like a genius.  But he twitched and drank from his coffee cup when he said it.  Then Letterman told Phoenix that Affleck's lawyers claimed to use the clips from Letterman's show for free under fair use copyright for their 'documentary' (i.e. a real Joaquin Phoenix meltdown). Now, he said the filmmakers owed him a million dollars because it was actually a 'mocumentary' (a fictitious Joaquin Phoenix meltdown).  I thought Letterman made an interesting point.  So - copyright applies to reality and fiction differently?  You can own fiction as a created object, but you can't own reality - a non-created object?  I'll have to read up on the legal definitions. 

There's another report at the Telegraph (here) where Affleck reveals that he almost went broke on the project (although frankly at this point, I'm having trouble believing anything he says). I do believe what he said about the literary piece that inspired him.  From the Telegraph: "Affleck said the project was an essay on celebrity culture. 'It was pretty much all within the realm of possibility: people use prostitutes, people use drugs, especially in Hollywood. We didn’t take it so far that it wasn’t believable,' he told The Daily Telegraph.

'For me, the film was Dante’s Inferno. Here was a guy midway through his life – Joaquin’s 35 years old – and he just goes down farther and farther into this more and more hideous place until he gets as low as he can possibly go. But then he breaks through to the other side and has some sort of redemptive experience – that was the movie, that was my guiding light. Also, this was a movie about a man having a movie made about him.'"

Illustration to Inferno. By Paul Gustave Doré.

The caption in the image above reads: 'In the midway of this our mortal life, I found me in a gloomy wood, astray' (Canto 1 lines 1,2; Inferno). The fact that this film is a version of Dante's Inferno set in modern Hollywood clearly hasn't sunk in with the critics yet.  You can read the Inferno here, and compare it to the movie.  Either one could be taken as an allegory for Gen X's mid-life circumstances right now.

Joaquin Phoenix had a Cheshire Cat look about him on Letterman on September 22, and I couldn't help stifling a guffaw when I saw it.  It's funny, but it's not funny. It is brilliant. Kudos to you, lads - you did it - somehow, you raised the bar.  This 'hoax as movie' won't endear Gen X to anyone, as usual.  But perhaps it's the generation that cried wolf - and risked getting killed and eaten - in order to show us there really is a wolf?

See all my posts on Generation X themes.


  1. A few points:
    First, Roger Ebert can, should actually, praise or criticize a movie for its technique, composition, acting, etc., but given his history it feels bizarre that he would take issue with a movie for blurring distinctions between life on and life off the celluloid. If memory serves me right (and after this article I'm seriously wondering how much of my memory really happened), he was hired by Malcolm McLaren (probably on the strength of "Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls")to write a vehicle script for the Sex Pistols, a punk update of the sort of vanity projects that Dave Clark 5 or Herman's Hermits used to do in which the band play themselves. The result was "Who Killed Bambi", which never finished production and spiralled out of control with rewrites. In fact, Ebert may not have been the first writer on it. Parts were cannibalized for "The Great Rock And Roll Swindle" and "The Filth And The Fury", the latter of which was made as a disambiguation of the former, specifically because its use of real people playing themselves in fictional scenarios fueled a mythology about the Sex Pistols which may have served McLaren's purposes but was often detrimental to the band's members and associates. Ebert may not be at all culpable for any ensuing damage, but he should certainly be intimately familiar with this precedent for playing with the audience's perceptions vs. reality.

    As should Richard Lester and The Beatles.

    And the obvious elephant in the room here is Andy Kaufman, who is widely remembered as a brilliantly original and daring comedian. He was, but few seem aware that his performance art 'routines' owed as much to debilitating mental illness as his genius. We only assumed he was perpetuating a massive con and prided ourselves on seeing through it, unaware that we had missed the much bigger con. He was externalizing some internal torture but we believed he was 'pretending' to be real.

    There are other examples, less extreme. Liza Minnelli's marriages, anyone? Oh, and Stan Lee didn't really preside over a Bullpen of creative folks who called each other by colorful nicknames and engaged in jovial camaraderie. The real 'Bullpen' was made of salaried writers and artists in the early 1950's, so-called because during their lunch break they ate in the studio and listened to baseball games on the radio. At the time, Stan had temporarily left comics to write for radio and TV and discovered the Bullpen when he returned as an editor. In 1957 everyone but Lee, the receptionist and a production manager was fired. For months they published only file stories while the owner debated whether to continue publishing comics at all. When they resumed, it was with a small core crew and the majority of work was created by free-lancers. Few people worked in the offices. Lee used the image of a Marvel Bullpen in his editorials, occasionally working himself and others actively into the stories and even into the plots (especially FANTASTIC FOUR #'s 10 and 176). That aggressive adherence to brand identity resulted in profiles in Rolling Stone and Esquire by the end of the 1960's. I'm not sure that terminology such as 'brand identity' even existed at that time. But even people who knew that Spider-Man was not real had no way of knowing that the Bullpen wasn't what they thought it was.

    I'm aware that you've seen my DP blog (and thank you for the acknowledgement; from someone so consistently insightful and articulate that's very high praise). I touched a bit on Boomer conceits in an anecdote from my librarian days a few months ago and now I wish I could have referenced this post at the time. Bravo.

  2. Hey pblfsda,

    Thanks for your amazing comment! Let me plug your DP blog - check out LGC Doom Patrol

    WRT the reality/non-reality, yes indeed, the Boomers have been doing it all for quite awhile. The whole problem goes back to the ancient Greeks and before - Plato's cave. Perhaps what interests me is that each generation approaches the problem differently.

    To digress for a moment, the use of generational terms of identification is a product of modern history. It has nothing to do with the weird theories of history put forth by people like Strauss and Howe, who were/are not historians. And there was a time of course when people did not define themselves generationally at all. The use of horizontal alignments for self-definition probably emerged in the late eighteenth century in revolutionary Europe. Vertical alignments (social hierarchy, family etc.) were replaced with horizontal loyalties (class, generation). Each of those loyalties relies upon a different value. So for example, people used to be motivated by ideas of duty, loyalty, fealty, honour - which have largely fallen by the wayside.

    To get back to the point, each generation deals with the problem of reality/unreality in their own way; they project the values they identify with onto that problem. The Boomers would toy with the idea, and ultimately boil everything down to a coy solipsism, lost in themselves, while sure there was still an objective 'authority' out there to fight.

    If the Xers approach the problem differently, which I think they do, then the question is - how and what values come to the surface when they do?

    The big giveaways on Gen X values buried in this big confidence trick imo are Affleck's two comments. First, he said that the camerawork became more accomplished, professional, stylized as the film progressed. That means that there is an aesthetic, an artistic practice and demonstration of artistic change, that reveals Xers' values. Second, he implied that the film is really Dante's Inferno, set in the reality film world of modern Hollywood. This is a medieval religious reworking of classical epics - a transition piece from the middle ages to the Renaissance. It's about a journey of the soul as it learns to recognize evil and reject it. That, to me, suggests that Affleck and Phoeix took a morally barren medium like reality TV and transformed it into a genre that could represent ethical values. And these are values that are historical embedded in our past - presented via a futuristic play on the expectations of a world-weary audience. So - past values presented through an aesthetic of improving film style through the film, plus the confidence ploy to force the audience to look at a very old story and an even older philosophical problems as if for the first time.