Five years ago, Joaquin Phoenix, the famous actor, decided to quite his successful acting career to become a rap star. When he announced to the media that he is quitting acting, the media went into a frenzy over the news. Casey Affleck, his brother-in-law, decided to make a documentary about his career change. For two years Affleck followed around Phoenix to document his transformation from actor to rapper (Cieply, 2010). After the documentary had been filmed, edited and was ready to be shown at the Venice Film Festival, Affleck announced that the entire film, including Phoenix’s announcement was all staged, none of it was real (Ebert, 2010). For two years the media had been riding a crazy ride that they did not know they were even on. What everyone believed to be a documentary turned out to be a controversial movie that showed a well-known actor as a victim of his own fame.
The film starts off with Phoenix walking around outside in the dark talking about how he is tired of being an actor. He says he is tired of constantly repeating someone else’s words and that he has confined himself into the box of acting. He then decides that he wants to quit acting and be a rapper. Shortly after, they show him at a charity benefit with several other famous actors, when it had ended and he walked out onto the red carpet and told an Extra reporter, “I want to take this opportunity… also to give you the exclusive and just talk a little bit about the fact that this will be my last performance as an actor… I’m not doing films anymore. I’m working on my music. I’m done. I’ve been through that.” That statement was played across all media outlets, it baffled people everywhere, no one could understand why an actor as good as Joaquin Phoenix would decide to quite acting to pursue career he appeared to have very little if any experience in. In American culture, when a person renounces a career or skill where they are seen as experts in to pursue what appears as a career path they know nothing about, that individual is often perceived as crazy or mentally unstable even. Phoenix committed this rule-breaking act on national television for all the world to see.
The film’s principle agent, also known as the character, was a fake Joaquin Phoenix being played by the real Joaquin Phoenix. Any time Phoenix was in public during the filming of the movie, he never broke character. Because he was already a well-known actor, he and Affleck were able to manipulate the media by leaving small sound bites when they had the opportunity to. He made appearances on talk shows and award ceremonies, including the Academy Awards. Clips of his strange behavior were being aired over and over all over the news. Joaquin Phoenix played as himself in the film and in public, nobody except a very few select people knew that he was in character as a fictional version of himself (Ebert, 2010).
As the filming progressed, he allowed himself to become more and more unkempt; he grew his beard long, never fixed his hair and wore what looked like homeless person clothes. He used his unbecoming appearance as one of his primary tools or agencies, to accomplish the convincing portrayal of his character. When he was invited onto talk shows he literally looked like he just walked in from living on the streets. The gradual decline of his appearance reinforced the message he was trying send to the public, that he has renounced his former life and wanted to become someone else, a rapper. Interestingly, the way he looked did not help reinforce his image as a rapper; instead it reinforced the idea that he was losing his mind. His physical appearance became a subject of controversy and conversation for many.
The chosen scenes, or locations, for the movie were not only physical spaces but also in realms that are hard to enter without causing a fair share of controversy. The physical locations were primarily at his homes in California and New York and in a variety of hotel rooms. There were also scenes of him pacing back and forth inside some bushes at night where he would express his personal feelings and even get emotional at times. The non-physical space where portions of the movie were filmed, not by the film’s videographer, was within the media. Duping the media and having them play along was an essential role in making the film as realistic as possible. The media was not aware at any point that all of Phoenix’s actions were him acting out a fictional storyline that was being played out in the real world instead of within a studio. There were many shots and film clips that were cut into the movie from newscasts and TV shows. They were able to transcend the limitations of filming a movie within only physical locations, they were able to enter into the media realm and use them as a location as well. That was only possible due to the fact that Phoenix tricked to media into making them think he was being himself and made his announcements and performances very public.
The purpose of this film, which basically is the reason why the character engaged in his rule-breaking behavior, is not immediately clear (Sellnow, p53). At the beginning of the movie Phoenix goes on a rant about how much he is sick of acting. He begins his rant saying, “I’m stuck inside this fucking self-imposed prison of characterization!” He continues on and expresses how he wants to escape the prison of being an actor and fulfill his long time dream of becoming a famous rapper. When taken at face value, it would appear that all of his actions he took from that moment on were in effort to pursue his dream to be a rapper. That is what all the media believed was going on for a couple years. After Affleck came out saying that the supposed documentary was not a documentary at all, but rather a work of art, the purpose of his actions became more clear. He broke all those social rules and norms in order to act in a movie to play a character that very much resembled himself.
Beyond the purpose of making a movie, there is his motive for acting in such way to create that movie. Again, there are two levels to his motives like there are to his purpose. At first glance, his motive, or the justification for his actions, was for him to pursue a personal dream of his, which happened to be rapper. The media and individuals were generally shocked and appalled at Phoenix’s gradual decline right before the public. Skits were made mocking him, bloggers where writing about him and the news was regularly reporting on his antics (Ebert, 2010). The general consensus seemed to be that Phoenix was in a downward spiral and needed serious help. When it became public that the entire two years was just a stunt for a movie, his true motive became more clear.
The movie appears to document Phoenix’s two year decline, showing many of awkward moments he had in public that the media obsessed over. As the film progresses, it becomes evident that the motive for his actions was victimage. Victimage is an attempt to absolve one’s guilt by placing the blame for their actions onto someone or something else (Sellnow, p53). With that understanding it is evident that through the use of Phoenix’s words and the showing of the many media clips of people talking about him, they were placing the blame of his two year breakdown on fame. His character becomes this egotistical and rude victim as the film moves on. A scene in the movie depicts him performing his rap songs live and it went terribly wrong, he fell off the stage and an audience member made rude comments to him that turned into a fight. Afterwards, he ran to some bushes and cried, “I’m just gonna be a goddamn joke forever.” During scenes like this, it is hard not to feel sorry for him and see him as a victim. Then they show scenes of him hiring prostitutes, doing cocaine and treating people with utter disrespect. He is portrayed as our culture’s fame obsessed victim. When looking at him through that lens it is quite easy to feel sorry for him and justify his actions. Without considering that this “documentary” is not a documentary at all, the character’s motive for all his debase and maniacal actions in real life and within the film is victimage.
Once it was revealed that all of Phoenix’s actions in real life were actually performances, the character’s motive completely changes from victimage to transcendence. Transcendence is when a character’s motive follows a higher calling beyond the rules he is supposed to obey (Sellnow, p53). He is no longer a victim as it first appeared, his life is not out of control, it never was. In reality it was precisely opposite of that, he and Affleck were in complete control, Even the many media outlets and bloggers had no idea they were being manipulated. His seemingly foolish and disastrous actions transcended beyond the need to protect his reputation. The character’s transcendent motive was to make a film about the trappings of fame and a celebrity obsessed culture (Ebert, 2010). After the truth was revealed, Phoenix’s so called downward spiral no longer was something mock or even talk about. He was not the stupid rap star wannabe but once again the amazing actor everyone knew him as.
Some people called Casey Affleck’s film a mockumentry because of its documentary like production with a created storyline and actors as participants (Cieply, 2010). Prior to his film being called a mockumentry, people thought it was a real story about a real person making a real decision to change his real career. Affleck prefers to call his film a movie; his intention was never for it to be some giant hoax as so many people took it as. He said the movie “was made without comment and with Joaquin in character when in public was because the media plays a role in the film and the media would not have played their role as well as they did had it been acknowledged that Joaquin was only performing” (Ebert, 2010). Affleck and Phonix’s unique approach to making this movie has created a lot controversy. Reading the comments on The New York Times’ article, some people seemed to have hard time believing in Phoenix’s transcendent motivation and have decided to believe his motivation was purely victimage and the transcendent motive was an afterthought to protect his reputation in the long run. Joaquin Phoenix played a very complex character whose motivations were difficult to understand because initially it was not even clear whom the character was and where and when the movie was taking place. On the movie rating website Rottentomatoes.com, the movie has a 52% rating, it appears that audiences either complete understood or misunderstood the movie.
Cieply, Michael. “Documentary? Better Call It Performance Art.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 16 Sept. 2010. Web. 10 Nov. 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/17/movies/17affleck.html.
Ebert, Roger. “Casey Affleck Levels about “I’m Still Here”” Roger Ebert’s Journal. Ebert Digital LLC, 22 Sept. 2010. Web. 10 Nov. 2013. http://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/casey-affleck-levels-about-im-still-here.
Sellnow, Deanna. The Rhetorical Power of Popular Culture: Considering Mediated Texts. Los Angeles: Sage, 2010. 51-69. Print.