Joaquin Phoenix's New Film a Fake: Is It Ever OK to Prey on the Public's Sympathy?

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HOLLYWOOD - NOVEMBER 01:  Actor Joaquin Phoenix of 'Two Lovers' arrives at the 2008 AFI Fest held at The Grauman's Chinese Theatre on November 1, 2008 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for AFI)

I often think about Andy Kaufman around Yom Kippur. While some people appreciated his type of humour and enjoyed being taken for a ride, others found the fact that their emotions had been jerked around off-putting. I always wondered if he used Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday of Atonement, to apologize to all the people who were unwittingly taken for a ride -- and didn't enjoy the journey.

Or if that's just entertainment.

So it's a bit strange that during the Days of Awe -- that 10-day period of time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when Jews are thinking about forgiveness -- Casey Affleck admits that the just-released Joaquin Phoenix documentary, I'm Still Here, is actually a fake. In fact, his whole on-going breakdown is also fake. The whole thing was a multi-year performance.

The Letterman appearance, the incoherent speech, the promise that he's done with acting, the promise that he's going to be a rapper -- all a long, well-planned artistic endeavor where some people were in on the message and others -- such as Letterman -- clearly were not.

Casey Affleck, the film's director, calls the documentary, "the performance of Joaquin Phoenix's career."

But for those who were sympathetically explaining Phoenix's bizarre behaviour under the context of Hollywood pressure or the loss of his brother, being jerked around for two years doesn't really feel like entertainment. Or even important commentary. It simply feels as if your good nature and ability to be empathetic has been taken for a ride.

And even if you weren't like me, explaining his breakdown with the fact that he was the person who called 9-1-1 when he watched his brother, River, die outside the Viper Room, I have to assume that many people who have experienced an actual breakdown won't appreciate Casey Affleck's lack of empathy for the audience as seen in the New York Times interview where it was pointed out,

Most mockumentaries, in the way of “This Is Spinal Tap,” wear their foolishness on their sleeves, leaving no doubt about their character as fiction. But Mr. Affleck, who is married to Mr. Phoenix’s sister and has been his friend for almost 20 years, said he wanted audiences to experience the film’s narrative, about the disintegration of celebrity, without the clutter of preconceived notions.

A similar approach was taken years ago with the film The Blair Witch Project, which confused filmgoers into believing the footage they were about to see was an actual ghost-riddled snuff film. During a time period where several female campers were murdered in the Shenandoah Valley, not far from the actual town of Burkittsville where the fictional campers left to go hiking, it was easy for viewers to forget the details of the real murders (all women) and believe what they were about to see were three victims of a similar crime.

And once again, many audience members didn't appreciate having the thrill of a horror movie intensified by bringing in a very real emotional reaction to witnessing what viewers believed to be the final moments of three hiker's lives, while others thought the whole project was brilliant. Horror movies are supposed to scare the viewer; and this one certainly did.

So is it ever funny or entertaining to prey on a person's good nature? How else can we create art that people approach without preconceived notions if we don't create these types of stunts?

Would you call it a scam or -- as Affleck puts it -- the performance of a lifetime?

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her book is Navigating the Land of If.


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