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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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era