Tag Archives: Gus Van Sant

I’m Still Here

Casey Affleck’s new documentary, I’m Still Here, purportedly documents the unraveling of actor Joaquin Phoenix–who in 2008 announced he was quitting acting to begin a rap career, and proceeded to act like a very media-starved crazy person for about a year. You probably remember it: His Letterman appearance, his various horrible rap performances,  his Hassidic/mountain-man/street-person look.  It was a mess. And this film provides an even messier (in every sense of the word), up-close-and-personal look inside Joaquin’s world during that period.

But is any of it real? Or is the whole thing–the media shenanigans, the “rap career,” the documentary by Joaquin’s brother-in-law Casey–all just some elaborate performance art experiment? It’s a testament to our highly skeptical, “nothing we see can be trusted,” post-mockumentary culture that these questions have from the outset framed this Joaquin/documentary discussion. And indeed, these are the questions I’m Still Here wants us to be asking as we leave the theater.

After watching the film, the evidence seems to point resoundingly to the “performance art / it’s-all-an-act” option, for several reasons:

  • The documentary was “written and produced” by Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix. Why would a truly mess-ed up, having-a-meltdown actor be so complicit in the creation of a film documenting (in very unflattering light) his own self-destruction? And why would a brother-in-law continue to roll the camera rather than intervene and help his wife Summer’s brother out?
  • For the entire duration of the documentary’s filming, Joaquin Phoenix was constantly in the public eye, and in very strategic ways (all of which show up in the film as very compelling plot points). In mid-2009, however, where the film’s chronology ends, Phoenix disappeared from the public eye and has not been seen or heard from since. Affleck’s camera seems to have been there for a very specifically segmented period in Phoenix’s life, but why didn’t it cover anything before the meltdown or after?
  • The film ends in a very cinematic way, with an homage to Gus Van Sant (a director both Affleck and Phoenix have worked with, and a director fascinated by experimenting with the inherent real/fake blurriness of cinema). The final sequence/shot of the film seems to say, “this is just an art film, an experiment, meant to make you ponder.”
  • The film’s production company is “They Are Going to Kill Us Productions” … which is perhaps a prophetic statement if and when Affleck/Phoenix publicly admit that the whole thing was a ruse.

There are a myriad of other reasons to doubt the veracity of this film, though even if we agree that it is mostly a performance art experiment, there are still the questions of what motivated Phoenix to do this, what the point is, and whether or not there are some core truths guiding the mayhem.

To the last point, I recommend David Edelstein’s take for New York Magazine, where he suggests that yes, the film is an act, but not entirely:

Phoenix’s metamorphosis looks less like a scam than a go-for-broke art project, an outlandish psychodrama with a nucleus of truth. A onetime alcoholic who’s known for being alternately un- and over-defended, whose beloved brother was a casualty of celebrity excess, who had fled show business before, who had lost himself in the role of Johnny Cash, country music’s quintessential self-created “outlaw” (winning acclaim but losing the ultimate prize, the Oscar), Phoenix would be a natural for one of those actorish existential breakdowns—the ones that turn on the old conundrum, “Where does my mask end and my true self begin?” To dismiss his latest role (and the film that charts its evolution) because it’s not “real” is to miss out on the charge of watching an actor play footsy with his own, barely corralled dementia.

(HT to Laurel for pointing me to this review).

Though I can’t get inside Phoenix’s head, I suspect that this “playing footsy with his own dementia” is a pretty apt description of what’s going on here. Acting–good acting, that is–always has a little bit of this going on. Phoenix here is simply playing with identity, experimenting with being a different version of himself, because that’s what his whole life has been anyway (the film takes care to remind us that Joaquin has been a performer basically since birth).

The film’s title seems like a not-so-subtle nod to Todd Haynes’ excellent Bob Dylan experiment, I’m Not There, a film very much about identity, masks, and the ways in which celebrity confuses or fragments notions of the self. Early in the film, Phoenix indicates that he “doesn’t want to play the character of Joaquin anymore,” a statement the likes of which most celebrities probably express, or feel, at one point or another.

It’s doubtless a strange thing to routinely bear witness to an external version of yourself in the media–watching yourself on YouTube, seeing yourself on Access Hollywood or in tabloids. Throughout I’m Still Here we see Phoenix watching himself on his laptop–glued to the screen like Narcissus looking into the pond. But is what he sees a familiar self? Or is it something as foreign as Commodus or Johnny Cash? Or is it ultimately all the same?

If the film is ultimately a treatise on the complexity of celebrity and the identity confusion of our postmodern world (where Googling oneself is common practice and the “self” seems ever more externalized and mediated), that’s fine. It’s interesting to think about such things. But I couldn’t help but wonder about the insensitivity of a “joke” like this, given that so many celebrities really are having public meltdowns and truly suffering from the confusions of public identity/performance/notoriety. Are the real-life troubles of the Britneys and Lindsays mere fodder for some high-minded meta critique of celebrity culture? Is there anything we as a culture, as consumers, can do to actually help heal these wounds?

Real or not, I’m Still Here is a rather somber film, full of depraved, reckless behavior on full, gratuitous display. The film is meant to make us laugh, and cringe, and maybe cry–because if it isn’t real for Phoenix it is certainly real for some people, and the experience of watching it all unfold is certainly a real one for us–the consumers. But then maybe that’s what it’s all about anyway. Maybe the joke is on us–the people ever less certain about the truth of that which we are fed, or rather that which we willingly consume.

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Mister Lonely

Harmony Korine is an arthouse director if there ever was one. Actually, he’s probably beyond arthouse–more avant-garde than anything. His films–1997’s Gummo, 1999’s Julien Donkey Boy, and now Mister Lonely–are unlike anything else coming out of American cinema. This is neither a praise nor a criticism. It is simply a fact that Harmony Korine–along with people like Vincent Gallo, David Gordon Green, and Richard Kelly–is one of the most distinct young voices in art cinema today.

Mister Lonely (see the trailer here) tells two simultaneous stories that have nothing at all to do with one another (though ultimately they do compliment each other). The first and dominant narrative concerns a commune in the Scottish highlands where a band of celebrity impersonators (including Madonna, James Dean, Queen Elizabeth, the Three Stooges, the Pope, Sammy Davis Jr. and Abraham Lincoln) live together in a bizarre and ultimately tragic fog of confused identity. The story focuses on Marilyn Monroe (the wonderful Samantha Morton) and Michael Jackson (a fantastic Diego Luna), as well as Madonna’s abusive husband (Charlie Chaplin) and their dainty daughter (Shirley Temple).

The second story is even more fantastical–and concerns a group of nuns somewhere in Latin America who discover that they can jump from planes without parachutes and survive. Their deep belief in God apparently bestows them with this miraculous ability, and by the end of the film the group–led by an eccentric priest (Werner Herzog) head off to the Vatican to have the Pope recognize their unique penchant for gravity-defying miracles.

Though there is plenty to talk about with respect to the “flying nuns” storyline, I’d like to discuss the celebrity wannabes in this particular post. I should first note that the actors who play these people (who impersonate their respective celebrity icons) are intentionally awkward and not all that good at what they do (though their costumes and basic mannerisms are spot-on). They are people who are so uncomfortable in their own skin that they feel they must live as (or through) the celebrities they idolize. It’s particularly sad to see them perform their stage “act” (in a decidedly minstrelsy scene late in the film) to an audience of about five. No one wants to see mediocre celebrity fakers; it’s terribly depressing. Indeed, the film’s mood is one of tragic, surrealist comedy: a sort of Waiting for Guffman-meets-David Lynch parade of naive whimsy and dark, eerie ambiance. It’s disarming to see Charlie Chaplin playing ping pong with Michael Jackson, or Queen Elizabeth dancing with James Dean. And these people never really break character (even when no one is watching), which is, well, just plain odd. It’s like watching an extended (and more poetic) episode of VH1’s The Surreal Life, only with A-list celebs who may or may not still be living.

It’s hard to say what exactly this film is about, but I think that’s probably the idea. The film is as confused as its characters are: about themselves, about each other, and about the world. But it feels very pertinent in this age of celebrity obsession, digital avatars, and postmodern identity. Increasingly we construct elaborate “lives” for ourselves in lieu of any sort of understood Self. Indeed, as Erving Goffman noted in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, we define ourselves in terms of the masks we try to live up to—and yet perhaps this mask is our truer self. In any case, there is a painful absence of self in this film: these people don’t know who they are, and Korine gives us nothing in the way of privileged knowledge otherwise. They are society’s outcasts, clinging together as spectral visages of immortalized icons, hoping for some sort of salvific utopia in their collective embodiment of the ghosts of pop culture’s past.

Though slow at parts, and certainly unfathomable from any conventional “what is this about?” point of view, Mister Lonely has some truly remarkable sequences and moments, beautifully photographed, edited, and assembled with an artist’s touch. The blend of image and sound is particularly strong, and in this way the film reminded me of Gus Van Sant’s recent triumph, Paranoid Park (my review here). Mister Lonely features a beautiful score from Jason Pierce of Spiritualized, as well as some classic hymns and modern tracks that accompany various stretches of poetic imagery. Bobby Vinton’s “Mister Lonely,” for example, is lusciously set to an introductory slow-mo sequence. An old recording of the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” provides the backdrop for one of the most striking montage sequences, and the Tennessee Mountaineers’ version of “Standing on the Promises” provides a striking song for the closing credits. Music by Aphex Twin and A Silver Mt. Zion also contribute to the overall ambience of the film.

Clearly Mister Lonely is not for everyone, and I daresay most people won’t be able to see it on the big screen even if they wanted to. But if you like lyrical, abstract-ish or surreal cinema, do make an effort to at least Netflix this film. There’s really nothing else like it.

Paranoid Park: The Best Film of 2008 (Thus Far)

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Gus Van Sant’s new film, Paranoid Park, is without question the best film of 2008 thus far. And if we consider it a 2007 film (it did qualify as such for the Independent Spirit Awards, for which it won one and was nominated for three), I would have to put it in the top four (certainly just as good as There Will Be Blood, I’m Not There, and No Country for Old Men).

Paranoid Park is one of those films that jolts awake my deep love of cinema (and I know that’s a cliché… but it’s true). I’ve seen six films in the theater over the last seven days, and admittedly such a schedule makes cinemagoing frightfully mundane—even laborious. But as I left Park I felt more alive and entranced by the beauty and possibility of cinema than I have since probably The New World. Like Malick’s film, Park is brimful of moments and sequences that are achingly beautiful.

Like several of Gus Van Zant’s more recent works (Elephant, Last Days), Park is on the experimental/lyrical/avant-garde side of things—which to this critic is definitely a good thing. Van Sant’s more mainstream films (Finding Forrester, To Die For, Goodwill Hunting) display a great mastery of the cinematic form, but the scope of the auteur’s striking talent and vision is only beginning to be fully realized. Paranoid Park is his most accomplished film—I might even dare to call it perfect.

But enough of the glittering generalities and over-the-top superlatives. So why is this film such a big deal? Why did it receive (and totally deserve) the 60th Anniversary prize at Cannes last year? Let me officially begin my review…

Adapted by Van Sant from the novel by Blake Nelson, Paranoid Park tells the seemingly simple story of a 16-year-old skateboarder, Alex (non-actor Gabe Nevins), who begins hanging out at a notorious Portland skate park (“Paranoid Park”) and associating with shady characters. One fateful night Alex accidentally kills a security guard, and the film is about how he deals with the (mostly psychological) consequences of this life-altering event.

Like its precursor and companion film, Elephant, Park features a cast of unknown teenage actors—a brilliant move that lends a striking awkwardness and realism to the film. Gabe Nevins is perfect in the lead role—a wide-eyed, innocent teenager who finds himself in the midst of something too horrible to comprehend. The film is told from his perspective, though in a non-linear, “never sure where or when we are” sort of fashion. Like a highschooler recounting his day at school to his mother, Alex gives us scarcely little in the way of sensical verbal narrative—repeating some things multiple times (with slight variations or shifted emphasis), retracting or reframing other things, giving staccato answers to immensely involved questions, etc. His fragmentary, confused perspective and stilted utterances speak many volumes of truth, however.

Unlike the fast-talking characters of other teen movies (Juno!), Nevins and the other adolescent actors in Park speak in the choppy, awkward, believable parlance of net-generation millennials. They talk about obligatory teen stuff (getting laid, making weekend plans), their personal problems (absentee dads, divorcing parents, annoying girlfriends), and even give MTV-style lip service to the problems of the world (Iraq, starving children in Africa, etc). They are the teenagers of today, and Van Sant’s eye captures them more perceptively than any film I’ve seen.

Paranoid Park explores the contemporary teen psyche well—externalizing the confusing and contradictory voices, influences, and narratives that crowd their mediated minds. Nevins’ Alex is never quite present in his interactions with people and lacks a tangible grasp of his own unfolding life. A scene of him driving a car and reacting to various songs playing on the radio (from classical to rap) displays his fluid, impressionable sense of self. Indeed, music is a huge part of the film, as it is in any teenager’s life. There is sort of “iPod shuffle” aesthetic to the soundtrack of Park—an eclectic, seemingly random assemblage of artists (everyone from Elliott Smith to Beethoven) that embodies the alternately angsty, meditative, whimsical, and disturbing mood of the film.

In the end, Paranoid Park is a film about the heavy incomprehensibility of “the self behind the self” (to use a phrase from an Emily Dickinson poem). There are multiple levels to this: Obviously Alex languishes under the tension between wanting to unload the terrible information that he holds and yet knowing that he can’t; but he also faces the more unsettling question of how he can live with himself in keeping it forever secret. Can one cordon off the unpleasantries of guilt and memory?

This is a film that astutely captures one young man in his first encounter with the burden of interiority—both as an adolescent in search of an authentic identity (beyond the Facebook self, the cell phone self, the skatepark self, etc) and as a human who must reckon with a reality that upsets the tidy balance of segmentation. All of this is rendered in far more organic and unpretentious ways than my discussion here would suggest. Still, it is complicated, challenging material—definitely not for the recreational filmgoer.

One of the things people will either love or hate about Park is the use of extended lyrical skateboarding sequences. During these audio-visual “interludes” (shot in a more home-video style), cinematographer Christopher Doyle (2046, The Quiet American) delicately follows the acrobatic swerving, flying, and weaving patchwork of teenage skater boys in slow-motion. It’s a remarkable sight to behold. For me, these were the most heartbreakingly profound moments—instances of making the familiar strange, of alienating the material environment while also exposing its truth. These scenes (and the whole movie), remind me of what realist film theorist Siegfried Kracauer believed cinema was most adept at capturing: “the flow of life.” Unlike photography, which can only capture moments and not movement of reality in time, the cinema, Kracauer believed, has the ability to capture reality in motion—an indeterminate glimpse into the open-ended continuum and “flow” of material existence.

Kracauer often referred to “the street” (i.e. shots of large groups of people in motion) as one of the most thrilling applications of cinematic potential. In his seminal work, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, Kracauer wrote:

The street in the extended sense of the word is not only the arena of fleeting impressions and chance encounters but a place where the flow of life is bound to assert itself. Again one will have to think mainly of the city street with its ever-moving anonymous crowds… Each [face] has a story, yet the story is not given. Instead, an incessant flow of possibilities and near-intangible meanings appears.

This applies to much of Van Sant’s film, which revels in the very indeterminacy and “near-intangible” meaning which photography and cinema uniquely relay. Indeed, much of Doyle’s photography in Park consists in long shots with purposefully little in the way of explicit meaning, point of view, or plot utility. As in Elephant, there are frequent tracking shots that simply follow Alex around as he walks in the school halls or carries his skateboard down a Portland sidewalk. Other shots linger on complicated faces (not just Alex) that could be thinking any number of things. There is a thrilling editorial restraint to this film, though it is no doubt a source of frustration for some viewers.

Clearly, Paranoid Park is not for everyone (again, a cliché!), but if you have any interest in seeing something truly unique and provocative and beautiful, I urge to go see this film. It comes out in NYC on March 7 and then releases wider as the month goes on.