If the 1990s were the age of irony, where everything sat between double quotes, the 2000s and 2010s are promising to be the age of the participatory lie. Bush’s claim of WMDs was the most egregious example. Even in the face of contradictory evidence, even now, long after it’s been proven that Hussein had no WMDs, we’re simply supposed to accept that we were lied to, but what’s done is done. We’re not even allowed to be outraged, being told that it serves no purpose to pursue legal action or demand resignations and apologies because… just because. Go along with it, chumps, until the next lie.
Now we have the semi-revelation that Casey Affleck’s documentary, I’m Still Here, purportedly charting Joaquin Phoenix’s descent into madness and shame, is a hoax. Practically everyone knew that Phoenix was faking it. His behavior was too sudden, too contrived, and too bizarre to be real. When it was learned that Affleck was filming the documentary, it became more obvious. Then the film came out, and while a handful of sensitive creatures bought the film’s premise and sent out pleas for Phoenix’s reclamation, most critics who saw it (I didn’t) found it discouraging, disgusting, and ultimately fake. Now that Affleck has admitted his fake documentary is fake, there’s an inevitable backlash. Sort of. Reaction has been annoyed but subdued, and the NY Times blog has even run a piece with a final swipe at those who dare complain about being duped.
Such behavior is endemic on the Internet. I remember a particularly nasty soul who believed anyone who was ever duped in any way on the Net had only him- or herself to blame. This judgmental attitude is completely appropriate when reprimanding those who e-mail their social security and bank account numbers to strangers, play on railroad tracks, or stand up on roller coasters, but to stigmatize the basic, very human instinct to empatize with others is just wrong. The blame has been shifted from the perpetrator of the lie to those who believed it; the attitude being that the victim should have known better, even when evidence refuting the lie wasn’t immediately present. This supports the passively evil practice of reflexive cynicism. Reflexive cynics aren’t terribly useful as commentators, advisers, or human beings. I’m not making a plea for brain-dead optimism; I’m saying that permanent cynicism is childish and ultimately leads to stasisâ€”you’ll never be hurt if you never act, but you’ll never accomplish much either. I’d add that if you ever choose reflexive cynicism as a personality traitâ€”never screw up, because you will be consumed by your fellow scolds.
So, what does this have to do with the participatory lie? Because during the course of Phoenix’s little drama in real life, there didn’t seem to be a serious effort to investigate if he was putting it on or not. Even David Letterman chose to participateâ€”I’d hesitate to say “knowingly” but I’d likewise hesitate to say “unwittingly”â€”going for the laughs offered by a genuinely flaky Phoenix rather than coming out and saying, “Come on. What’s the game?” Then, with the film’s release, the tone shifted to, “We knew all along,” setting a new course for the marketing of the film vis a vis a debate over the propriety of Affleck/Phoenix’s gag. We supported the lie, now let’s react strongly over being duped (even though it was all done with our full participation). Furthermore, let’s mock those people (Roger Ebert was one) who thought it might be real. Amazing. If all of this was constructed in a marketer’s office somewhere, it’s cause for being very afraid of how easily the mass of journalists and public intellectuals can be manipulated. Present company included.
I’m Still Here is also another instance of the impractical joke. In terms of hilarity, I’d put it on the tier between giving someone a fake winning lottery ticket and a phone call stating a loved one just died in a car accidentâ€”ha ha, just kidding! Descriptions of the film describe a series of events in which Phoenix is arrogant, insane, abusive, and self-destructive, but, as far as I can tell, without a hint of amusement or a tip-off that it’s all a game.* In one apparently unforgettable scene, an abused underling shits on a sleeping Phoenix. The penetrating commentary on the nature of celebrity oozes from every frame I’m sure. If anything, it sounds like Affleck and Phoenix overreached, and their satire became bloated with so much unpleasantness, no one feels much like laughing.
Affleck and Phoenix didn’t especially hurt anyoneâ€”though their own careers may be a bit dinged. But the hoax of I’m Still Here is comparable to taking an exceedingly long time to tell a terrible and offensive joke, blowing the punchline, and then standing uncomfortably in front of a group of confused, insulted, and slightly angry individuals who’d like the last 10 minutes of their lives back. Who could blame them?
* Okay, the rapping was a tip-off, but it seems like the absurdity of the rapping becomes submerged by Phoenix’s increasingly erratic behavior. If Affleck and Phoenix were going for a more plausible case of celebrity overreaching, they would have had Phoenix trying to become a rock star ala Keanu Reeves or Russel Crowe. Instead they went for the off-the-rails insanity of a rap career, and it doesn’t sound like they did much more with it than annoy P. Diddy.