Gilbey on Film: Is Joaquin Phoenix having a laugh?

Whether or not his new film is a spoof, the actor is still a welcome antidote to Hollywood.

No one in this super-sophisticated age wants to be the worrywart who goes diving under the bed when Orson Welles's War of the Worlds broadcast comes on the radio. We don't want to be caught out like the celebrities and politicians hoodwinked by Chris Morris's Brass Eye stunts, or the gullible fall guys set up by Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat and Brüno. We like to think we're ahead of every game. We know Elvis is alive. He's gone punting on the Cam with Michael Jackson. There's no pulling the wool over our eyes.

This collective determination to keep the egg as far from our faces as possible stems from the same recognisable social horror, the same morbid fear of the faux pas, that you'd find in something by Mike Leigh or Alan Bennett. And it is present in the response to the upcoming documentary I'm Still Here: the Lost Year of Joaquin Phoenix, which details the public and private meltdown of this brooding actor, who announced last year that he was cutting short his acting career to become a rapper. (To clarify: Phoenix is 35 years old. More to the point, he can't rap.)

A now-infamous appearance on Late Night With David Letterman, in which a taciturn Phoenix sat barricaded behind shades and crazy beard, felt like a bristly protest against the chat-show format, with its insatiable appetite for compliance, charisma and painstakingly rehearsed "off-the-cuff" anecdotes. That the whole affair might have been a prank (Phoenix was enjoying himself too much to suppress the odd indulgent smile or smirk) did not lessen the pleasure, or the spectacle. What was curious was the rush among the media, and online readers, to be the first to spot the joins, to cry foul.

Then the news broke that another actor, Casey Affleck, was following Phoenix everywhere with a camera, documenting this new career. Which brings us up to date. The LA Times reported on a recent screening of I'm Still Here for potential distributors: "It's far from the Joaquin Phoenix you're used to seeing onscreen: snorting cocaine, ordering call girls, having oral sex with a publicist, treating his assistants abusively and rapping badly. And not, apparently, playing a role -- or was he?"

Affleck has denied that the film is a mockumentary. Either way, I hope it isn't overshadowed by all this squabbling about definitions. It's largely irrelevant whether it is a hoax or not. Isn't it illuminating enough that Phoenix should choose to derail his prestigious career, even temporarily, with such tomfoolery? A genuine breakdown could hardly be any more revealing (and, we can but hope, would not have become a YouTube sensation).

Subject and director make an intriguing partnership. Affleck is married to Phoenix's sister. The actors appeared together as a pair of aimless delinquents in Gus van Sant's 1995 black comedy To Die For. Both men began their careers in the shadow of famous elder brothers -- River Phoenix (who died in 1993) and Ben Affleck -- whose work they have now arguably eclipsed. Aspersions have been cast on Casey Affleck's role as the director of I'm Still Here, but he has technical know-how, having helped to edit van Sant's Finding Forrester. "It's one of the best jobs on a movie," he said in 2003. "You get to assemble the thing. That's film -- juxtaposing images. When do you cut? What does it say if you cut there, or here?"

In his most complex on-screen work -- in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Gone Baby Gone and The Killer Inside Me (out in the UK next month) -- Affleck is a picture of wiry control. Phoenix, on the other hand, is a splurger, an actor so open, his work can be uncomfortable viewing.

James Gray, who directed him in three films (The Yards, We Own the Night and Two Lovers) wrote: "Looking back on our first collaboration, I'm not sure we actually collaborated all that much. I seem to remember a whole lot of torment and angst and yelling and screaming. But I also remember consistently being amazed by the emotional depth of the then 24- year-old, and I loved his feral unpredictability. He seemed ready to explode at any minute."

Even as a child performer (when he went by the name of Leaf Phoenix), he always seemed uniquely troubled. In the sickly 1989 comedy Parenthood, Phoenix's turn as a hostile, scrunch-faced kid racked with self-loathing supplied a sour antidote to all the hugs and life lessons. He still serves the same function in US cinema. He's still an antidote.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He blogs on film for Cultural Capital every Tuesday

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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