5 May 2011

Death of a Selfhood: Pathetic Inauthenticity in Phoenix's and Affleck's I'm Still Here

by Corry Shores
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Death of a Selfhood:
Pathetic Inauthenticity in Phoenix's and Affleck's I'm Still Here

(Thank you image source: Binsidetv)

In Death of a Salesman, Willy Lowman is hinted at being a true craftsman, which shows particularly in the construction-work he did on his own home. And we learn it runs in the Lowman blood to be the sorts who live out closer with the elements and feel the life throbbing through them. Yet Willy had a brother, Ben, who found riches by going into the jungle and somehow coming out wealthy. He did so by not playing fair with others, we gather. Willy aspires to making it big, like his brother Ben, and he thinks he can do so by finding success in sales, yet not by playing unfairly, but by being well-liked. In the end, Willy nets a zero as far as financial wealth is concerned. Yet while raising his kids, Biff and Happy, Willy instills in them the belief that they too will make it big if they follow his ambitions and style. But this way of life proves to be artificial and empty, and in some senses immoral (Willy is unfaithful to his wife while on business trips). Willy finally concludes he is only worth the value of his life insurance and so he decides to kill himself to leave his kids something he thinks they need. His eldest son Biff tried to stop Willy's ruin in an emotional confrontation when Biff attempts to cut through the artificial charade and confront his father about their family's real self-hoods. You might say they are really 'low men', but not so, if only they realize their excellence in manual craft and their enviable inherent inclination to enjoy the good and simple things in life, 'the chance to sit and smoke'.

We might say this is the tragedy of the American dream. The aspiration to make money at the cost of being who we really are deep down makes us in the end worth nothing, dying not even having the chance to express our true selfhoods or develop our God-given talents. We might feel compelled to produce an artificial version of ourselves to attain the love we think that wealth and success will bring us.

Affleck's and Phoenix's reality-mockumentary, I'm Still Here, presents something similar in a general sense. From the first scene, we see that the supposedly true narrative is patently ridiculous. Phoenix is bumbling around in shabby clothes explaining an absurd premise (there is a hole in his sleeve that makes it especially difficult to take him seriously). Throughout his acting career, he never felt like himself. That is plausible. But then, he has decided to find his real self by pursuing a career in hip-hop music. They make it blatantly obvious that hip-hop rapping is not in his blood. It could not possibly be who he really feels himself to be. We are gradually given more reason to think this. The appearance he takes on, a scruffy beard and mangy hair, is not like anything remotely reminiscent of what would seem to fit-in with the impressions hip-hop gives us. However, he does sing about his own struggles as a hip-hop artist might do; and yet, he does not deliver his lines in a way that will convince us he is feeling these things deep down. Perhaps I must take that back. For someone just starting, his performances are incredibly proficient. Maybe all we hear is primarily just the emotion of the initiatory experience. Nonetheless, what we need to feel instead is something like a John Henry resolution to be there when the last hammer falls. Despite whatever true expressions of selfhood we know we feel from Phoenix's rapping, can we really say we feel the soulfulness of someone who is there for better or worse?

The obvious question we ask is, why hip-hop? It completely does not fit the intended premise of finding his true self. Rapper Sean Comes asks this very question when Phoenix shares his demo tracks at Comes' studio. What we have is a story that is somewhat similar to Death of a Salesman. But here, Phoenix is crafting an artificial self for the sake of the reality-mockumentary. In the story, his rapper-self fails. But this is because his persona is a theatrical artificiality whose inauthenticity stands-out when it is injected into the real world. Puffy says he believes Phoenix could succeed, because anyone who puts their heart into it can do anything. But obviously Phoenix does not have his heart in it, because it is all an artificial premise for a fake documentary. Earlier P.Diddy makes the point that Phoenix is coming into the project disrespectfully, seemingly because he is not prepared to invest his money into the production. But more generally speaking, there is something disrespectful about Phoenix presenting himself artificially in this way. We do not sympathize with him when he fails miserably. He failed from the beginning, by not being himself. In this film, Phoenix himself might have succeeded as an actor and performance artist (blending reality and fiction, etc), but his character fails in his aspirations, because Phoenix really is not a rapper deep down.

Both Death and Still Here show us directly the ineffectiveness of artificial self-hood. Willy's normal tactics cannot save him from getting fired; he gets no sympathy from his boss. Phoenix is ridiculed by his audiences, who treat him more like a cheap stunt than a real hip-hop performer; rightly so, as that is exactly what he is.

From these stories it would seem that there is no success except authenticity. We might know that what we do is authentically us, if we approach it with a feeling of profound respectfulness. For otherwise, it is merely a joke.

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  1. I was a fan of Joaquin Phoenix - I suppose I still am. Fine actor. Thing is, you can be really talented but not too bright, and I think Phoenix and Afleck fall into that category. This is what happens when people with lots of money and time on their hands get an idea that the rest of us would have discarded as impracticable. In more skilled hands, such a project may have had potential as a bit of self-critical irony. Instead it becomes ironic on a completely different level.

    "The woods are burning boys!" Authenticity, or the lack thereof, is killing us all. Willie Loman is tragic on multiple levels, not least of which is his profound lack of introspection. Miller was critiquing the American dream--and rightly so. But the real torture is when you know you're inauthentic but you can't do a fucking thing about it.

  2. So true. And thanks for the "The woods are burning boys!" quote, one of the best, and I since forgot it.
    After reading this post by Jtriley, I began changing my mind on the subject:


    In a few weeks, I will have my next take on it, which will include some material by Orson Welles and the production of truth through fakery.