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Pathetic Inauthenticity in Phoenix's and Affleck's I'm Still Here
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.