Joaquin Phoenhoax

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 stasis—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 trait—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 participate—I’d hesitate to say “knowingly” but I’d likewise hesitate to say “unwittingly”—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 accident—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 anyone—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.

Sorry, Kane

I guess this qualifies as a bootleg toy. Alien-inspired Whac-a-Mole game in a pizza place (Giovanni’s) in International Falls, MN. Actually, this is awesome.

Added bonus: Bizarre art from a spider-stomping game. Same principle as Whac-a-Mole, kind of, except you use your feet.

He Holds Up a Mirror to Society, and It Is a Tacky Mirror

A.O. Scott demonstrates the tendency to try too hard to validate Todd Solondz’s plodding, soulless movie-making.

“He is unsparing in his attack on the complacencies of the suburban upper middle class, but to describe his attitude as cruel or contemptuous is to miss the compassion and the almost rabbinical ethical seriousness that drives his inquiries. And to take a movie like “Life During Wartime” as satire is to simplify its intentions and effects.”

Oh dear God. And here I was worrying there would never be another film attacking the complacencies of the suburban upper middle class. Just the other day I was telling my wife, “If ONLY there were some suburban upper middle class auteur who would take on their suburban upper middle class upbringing, so suburban upper middle class persons like myself could see how complex we are, and how our complacencies must be attacked.”

Solondz is neither cruel nor contemptuous, compassionate nor ethical. He’s witless, dull, and formulaic, staking out dark territory and wrapping it in that glacial, glassy-eyed Raymond Carver/John Updike style that charms the pseudo-intellectuals. The man takes the worst society has to offer and makes it, through some unknowable process, both creepy AND boring. I picture Solondz sitting down before each film, writing down nouns like “Rapist,” “Pederast,” and “Victim” and verbs like “Molest,” “Murder,” and “Rape” on slips of paper, throwing them in a hat, then picking them out at random to create characters and their motivations. Next he creates a timeline of disintegration, compounded by having not one but several characters’ lives slowly and painfully implode.

Solondz’s ability to get high-caliber actors such as Dylan Baker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and others to mouth his twaddle is inexplicable to me, since it’s only by the power of their acting chops that his films are remotely watchable. It’s like watching Andres Segovia carry a garage band. Dylan Baker performed the amazing act of making a child rapist likable, though at the end of the day you need to ask yourself why. Answer: Solondz, in his desire to attack those dang complacencies, just wanted to sucker-punch us. Baker’s life is finished. His relationship with his son is irrevocably damaged. His family is destroyed. The community is in witch hunt mode. Fuck you. The end. Epilogue: Why in God’s name did we need a likable child rapist in the cinematic pantheon?

I’m sure it’s proposed that any negative criticism of Solondz films is based in prejudice because his films are hard to watch. Solondz’s films are hard to watch, it is proposed (as I infer), because they reveal that which we would rather not face. This is compounded, or rather muddled, by Solondz’s addition of an insincere jigger of emotion. By God, his characters may be damaged and unappealing, but they’re still human, and thus they deserve our sympathy. Roger Ebert (a Solondz supporter), said, if I may crib from the Wikipedia entry for Happiness,

“…the depraved are only seeking what we all seek, but with a lack of ordinary moral vision…In a film that looks into the abyss of human despair, there is the horrifying suggestion that these characters may not be grotesque exceptions, but may in fact be part of the mainstream of humanity.”

Reall? Ebert is a national treasure, but every now and then even he slides into ponderous-sounding muck. It sounds good, but apply the above sentiment to, say, John Wayne Gacy, or maybe just a pedophile priest. Still think they’re part of humanity’s mainstream, rather than walking horrors? Does someone need a hug?

You know why I like the show Dexter? Because it knows it’s satire/black comedy and clearly displays itself as such. Solondz’s films are described as satire, but his supporters really don’t want them to be. Labeled as black comedy, they’d lack the ambiguity that engenders gravitas. They’d be shown up as the crutch-kicking melodramas they really are. Also, they’d have to be funny in some way.

Solondz is accused of hating his characters. I don’t think he hates them. You can’t hate them because they’re made of cardboard, floating along on the windy whims of his plots and damp with crocodile tears.

Are his films challenging? Yes, in the way it’s hard to watch a kid with a runny nose licking away at his upper lip. But perhaps the booger-eater is a comment on society’s hypocrisy, and when we watch the vile little snot-gobbler, aren’t we just watching ourselves?

No, we’re not. And you’re trying too hard if you think we are in Todd Solondz’s movies.

Side note: I think Solondz first introduced Jane Adams in her perfect victim role. As Todd Field has proven, if you ever need a helpless, fragile as a glass unicorn whipping girl in your movie, hire Jane Adams. She always looks like she’s on the verge of hysterical tears, and won’t tell anyone what you did, no matter how many cigarettes you stubbed out on her.