You’re probably more up to date with showbiz news than I am. Your finger is probably more firmly on the pop pulse than mine and your flippage through celebrity gossip mags more frequent. If, by chance, you’ve never heard of the film I’m Still Here, I strongly recommend you stop reading now and hire it at your local DVD library. Don’t Google it, just watch it. Now.
In high school I had the opportunity to skip ahead a year and complete VCE-level French while I was still in Year 11. Academically, it was challenging, but not as challenging as negotiating the social landscape proved. I went to an all-girl Catholic school in an unremarkable Melbourne suburb. I don’t remember being a victim of bitchiness or cattiness in any significant way and for the most part I made it through my secondary schooling unscathed by peer-inflicted wounds, emotional or otherwise.
Seniors’ foreign-language classes were held in the ‘language school’, what was formerly a family home that remained on the school grounds. What were once the dining room and lounge room had been turned into classrooms, and the former bedrooms were now given over to private music tuition. That day, I was running slightly late for class and was relieved to note the teacher’s absence indicating that she, too, was late. The observation that immediately followed was that more than half of my class was absent. Hovering round the classroom door, I realised that about six students were huddled in the central bathroom, gathered round another student who was crying. I floated around the perimeter of the group trying to work out what was going on when the chief consoler, let’s call her Lisa, announced to me that the student in the middle of the huddle, let’s call her Nancy, was pregnant. Thoughts and emotions all piled on top of each other in my naïve 16-year-old brain, making the news difficult to process.
The first thought—it must be said—was surprise. Nancy was a quiet, plump, scholarly girl who didn’t outwardly give the impression of being able to incite lust in anyone. There were some students of whom the same sort of news would have been expected, but this revelation came from left field. True, I hardly knew the girl, but the impression she had given me was one of earnestness and diligence to her studies.
Then came the thirst for information. Who’s the father? Does he know? What are you going to do? Lisa helpfully filled me in with the answers. The father knew. He didn’t care. He’d washed his hands of the whole business. Nancy didn’t yet know what she was going to do.
Then, rage. How could this be allowed to happen? How could this be only Nancy’s problem to deal with alone? How dare he treat her so disrespectfully? Why was it all so unfair? Incensed, I paced the width of the short hallway, asking these questions to no one in particular. My anger came on with an intensity that surprises me even now. I asked her if there was anything I could do, and offered my support to her in any way she needed it.
Finally, complete bewilderment. The girls in the bathroom collapsed into fits of giggles. Nancy gave a coy, sly smile and looked up at me from under her long, dark, falsely wet eyelashes. It took me some long, awkward moments to regain my emotional balance and smell the proverbial coffee.
We had only been dating a short time. I took the phone call in my father’s downstairs workshop for some privacy. I was smitten with him, almost starstruck. It seems odd to recall feeling that way because, in hindsight, he was only 16 and I a much older and surely more sophisticated 18, but he was quick-witted, funny and charismatic and I was mesmerised from day one.
The following day was to be a hot one. I suggested that we spend it at the beach. Oh no, he said. He couldn’t. He was allergic to sand. I’d never heard of anyone having a sand allergy before and I questioned it with interest, but he gave me a 15-minute explanation of its history and symptoms. He’d always had it, he explained, and the reaction flared hotly even with exposure to only one grain of sand. I was fascinated. But didn’t you go on beach holidays as a kid? I wanted to know. Where did you go instead? How did you avoid it in the schoolyard as a kid? I listened to the answers with a keen interest in this new topic. I was incredibly sympathetic as my own very happy memories of childhood largely centred around family trips to the beach, and I couldn’t imagine life without those experiences.
Just as I was steering the conversation towards a considerately alternate activity for the following hot day, he erupted with laughter.
On Tuesdays my local Video Ezy hires out all movies for $1.95. Being holidays I decided to treat us to a movie. I usually labour over the selection, pulling out my phone to search for must-see movie lists and poring over the catalogue. Today, instead, I abandoned my typical overthinking and plucked one from the shelf based on its interesting cover and the fact that Margaret Pomeranz had given it four stars. I didn’t even bother to read the blurb on the back.
What’s this movie about? my husband wanted to know. I have no idea, I said. Margaret gave it four stars. He shrugged and leaned back on the couch. We both knew he’d probably sleep through it, anyway.
The film opens darkly with an overweight, hairy, babbling man shrouded in a hooded jacket talking away from the camera. The man is revealed to be Joaquin Phoenix, accomplished and awarded actor. Disillusioned with his profession, he is documenting his search for a more meaningful life by taking a different creative path, eschewing acting for a musical career in the hip-hop genre. Oh. I said to my husband. It must be autobiographical.
As the film unfolded, I watched on in horror, fascination, sorrow, disbelief, sympathy, shock and confusion. My husband stayed awake from beginning to end, wide-eyed.
After publicly announcing his retirement from acting, the maniacal Phoenix rages throughout the film, completely oblivious to his own derangement. He is delusional about his talent for rap from beginning to end, and insists on consummating his quest for a complete career change. On his journey, we witness a drug-fuelled, fundamentally lonely, self-obsessed man who lashes out at people around him, verbally and physically, crushing the self esteem of anyone at close range. An interview on the David Letterman show revealed a fragile and socially reticent Phoenix who declined to engage in the interview. His musical performances throughout the film were utterly devoid of talent, leading me to believe that his ego-stroking staff were intensely stupid, absolutely desperate for a job, or psychologically damaged.
Despite his obvious psychological problems, I found myself searching for a logical explanation for his erratic and alarming behaviour. Having been in the public eye from such a young age, and witnessing the death of a brother along the way, had clearly had a profound impact on the man. I found myself feeling deeply sorry for him, which oddly triggered a sharp sidestep in my thinking and movie-watching experience.
This man is clearly having a mental breakdown, I thought. Why on earth are they continuing to film? Has society’s obsession with celebrity breakdown scandal reached the point of self-obsessed actors documenting themselves for celebrity-deranged consumers? Ought I to be watching this? Hang on a sec—something is NQR about all this…Impatient to know whether Phoenix ever recovered from his psychosis, about five minutes before the end of the film I reached for my phone and looked him up on Wikipedia. One sub-heading immediately jumped out at me: Music career hoax.
In my intellectual flurry to rationalise my intense reaction to the deception and make sense of it all, I Googled ‘Joaquin Phoenix mockumentary’ and learned that the whole film was staged to explore the public’s fascination with supposedly ‘reality’ television. Upon learning that many believed reality television was unscripted and, indeed, real, Phoenix and his co-creator, Casey Affleck, conspired to concoct a piece of performance art designed to poke a large finger of fun at a celebrity-crazed, media-devouring public. Allegedly, even David Letterman was a pawn in their mocu-movie-making.
Oh, I breathed with relief. I wasn’t the only dope to be taken along for the ride. Assuaged by this thought I went to bed, only to find that I couldn’t sleep. Thoughts, emotions and memories all bubbled and fizzed in my head, preventing relief from the anger burning in my chest.
I had a frustrating conversation with someone recently. I hate the Kardashians, I said. I love them, said she. Keen to hear her point of view, I continued. Actually, to be fair, I don’t know the first thing about them. What is it that they actually do? I asked. She explained that one of them has built a successful business promoting a range of products. Yes, but that was a result of the TV show. How did they get to be on TV in the first place? I pressed. What did they do to become famous? Nothing in the ensuing exchange enlightened me as to the answer.
Unlike the celebrity-crazed, media-devouring general public, I have never understood the appeal of ‘reality television’. I find the very term offensive in its inaccuracy and marvel disbelievingly at the conversations the genre generates in the daily landscape of my life. While living in the UK, I was downright enraged at the absolute futility of trying to avoid all mention of Big Brother. I never watched a single episode, or hung around to listen to a single conversation about it at work or the pub, but found that the large signs outside my local newsagent meant that I always knew about the latest scandal whether I liked it or not.
I was undeservingly lumped in with the celebrity-obsessed masses and I was angry about it. I’m Still Here drove a French-language, sand-allergic stake of betrayal through my lungs and knocked the wind out of me.
Ms Pomeranz, I see your four stars and I raise you five.