The worst of the year?

September 11, 2010

I always read those warnings that accompany films — the ones designed to steer you, or prompt you to steer your children, away from what you consider offensive. The Joaquin Phoenix film “I’m Still Here” may not be unique in this regard, but it is for me — the first film I have seen in which the content warnings include “defecation.”

I generally don’t care about foul language, and nudity and sexuality aren’t show stoppers for me if they’re important to the context of the film, but defecation? Check, please!

I wouldn’t have seen this film even without the crap, as it were, because I’m not sufficiently interested in Joaquin Phoenix whether he’s drawing Oscar nominations or coming apart at the seams. What I do find amusing, though, is the coverage of this film — and particularly the speculation about whether it’s a true documentary, as billed, or whether it’s a put-on or a little of each.

Critics don’t often find themselves having to wonder aloud whether they’re watching fact or fiction, but they do in this case. Sheila Marikar of ABC News, for example, writes: “Joaquin Phoenix could be the most narcissistic, sniveling, drugged-up mess of a man ever to appear on a screen. Or he could be the greatest actor of all time. After watching ‘I’m Still Here,’ the just-released documentary that chronicles his 2008 departure from Hollywood and attempt to launch a rap career, the former seems more believable.”

Steven Rea in the Philadelphia Inquirer writes: “Joaquin Phoenix is either one of the greatest actors ever to walk the red carpet on his way to that Entertainment Tonight sound bite, or he’s an insufferably neurotic, narcissistic, doped-up jerk.

“Whichever turns out to be the case (I’m betting on the latter), ‘I’m Still Here’ — the documentary-like chronicle of a year in the life of the twice-Oscar-nominated thespian, as he announces his retirement from movies to pursue a career as a hip-hop artist – stands as a fascinating look at the cloistered, coddled world of a movie star who’s not quite up there in the A-list tier of, say, Leo or Tobey.”

“And Manohla Dargis of the New York Times describes the film as “a deadpan satire or a deeply sincere folly (my money is on the first option) about Mr. Phoenix’s recent roles as an acting dropout and would-be hip-hop artist.”


I don’t want to go into detail about the contents of this film — the verbal abuse, the coke snorting, the prostitution, the revolting manners and, indeed the defecation — but it is spelled out in Laremy Legel’s review in the Seattle Post-Dispatch.

In 1958, a critic discussing the Broadway play “Make a Million” said he had spent the previous evening “laughing at a very bad play.” Legel acknowledges that he laughed at some parts of this film, which was directed by Casey Affleck, who is married to Phoenix’s sister.

Legel gets to the heart of the matter when he addresses the pretense that this is a documentary account of a man who has rejected both the work and the milieu of Hollywood and set out to build himself a new career:

“We don’t see him working on his craft, we don’t see him in the clubs trying to get better, we don’t see him reaching out to rappers or starting a writing notebook. What we do see is his him leveraging his celebrity to cause a spectacle. What we do see is him not taking it seriously. What we do see is him not caring, which would be fine, if only he didn’t ask us to instead.”

From what I can discern, Phoenix is a jerk and this movie is garbage, and yet Phoenix also seems to have gotten what he was probably after all along. Everyone is writing about him — including me.


sophiaAt the age of 66, I saw my first 3-D movie – “Monsters vs. Aliens” – and it was a hoot. The occasion was that our granddaughters are spending a couple of days with us, and on a rainy day a movie seemed like a good way to get out of the house. Um, to go sit in the dark at the Regal Cinema, but that’s still not sitting at home. That may be the first time I took the girls to a movie, though Pat may have taken them before. I don’t have a  lot of experience with that; my grandparents weren’t movie goers. Well, it didn’t seem that way, but one Saturday when I was about 12 or 13 years old, my grandfather was very animated about a movie he had seen the night before – the film version of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida.” This film featured Sophia Loren as the Ethiopian princess, which was ironic considering the historic relationship between Italy and Ethiopia.  My grandfather was on the phone all day calling his friends, urging them to go to Paterson to see this film. I wasn’t used to Grandpa going to movies or listening to opera, so this attracted my attention. I overheard him tell Tony Pombo, the vegetable peddler, that he was going to see “Aida” again, so I asked him if I could go along. I wound up taking two of my friends, and we were all impressed by something that before that night was completely foreign to our experience. (No, I don’t mean Loren.) That movie launched me into a lifelong love affair with opera. That was the only time my grandfather and I did anything like that together. Our relationship was a little remote for that. But I always give him credit for the fact that I have seen and listened to so much of Verdi and Puccini and Rossini and Bizet over the last 50 years.

gonewiththewind1 Grandma, incidentally, didn’t see “Aida,” because she swore off movies after she saw “Gone With the Wind.” This was the stuff of family legend: She was scandalized by the language with which Clark Gable addressed Viven Leigh in the famous finale. Apparently Grandma didn’t see why she should pay good money to listen to such talk when she was perfectly capable of staying home and swearing like a drunken sailor anytime she pleased. She also had a parakeet that she taught to utter profanities with an Italian accent, so she could hear the blue talk without contributing anything on her own, and without buying a ticket. People were so much more self-sufficient in her generation.