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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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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