Friday, September 17, 2010

"Is it real?"

OK, so maybe it is not exactly earth-shattering that Joaquin Phoenix has “acted” the last two years of his life whenever everybody thought he was crazy, but it is rather cool to consider. I mean, it does beg the question where exactly is the boundary between the actor’s art and “real” life?

For whatever reason, Phoenix, who is an accomplished actor, shocked the entertainment world in 2008 by supposedly renouncing his film career in order to tour as a mediocre hip-hop performer. All he got for his trouble, apparently, was a rather bizarre interview on The David Letterman Show and a fight with an audience member in Miami.

Not everyone bought the act to begin with.

I recall following these events with interest at the time. I was particularly taken with the Letterman episode because, I swear, if I didn’t know better I would have thought Phoenix was making a mockery of the entire, inane talk show industry. A rather intense parody where the event is turned back on itself and Mr. Letterman is left to muddle through the interview more or less alone. Everyone thought Phoenix was a sad, perhaps drug-induced joke. As it turns out, he wasn’t. More accurately, he was the joker and the joke was the entire talk show phenomenon in American life itself. Rather brilliant.

With the release of I’m Still Here, the “documentary” on Phoenix’s strange new life, it can now be revealed that everything about the actor’s behavior was – in fact – an act. The distinction between who he was and who he was portraying disintegrated. Phoenix became a different version of himself, perhaps the greatest performance of his career.

As such Joaquin Phoenix has redefined the term “performance art” and taken it to its highest level. No doubt the guy he dove off the stage and wrestled with in Miami might be thinking about suing him for damages, even more so now since the audience member became part of the act. But, to me, that just makes the act even more brilliant.

And no doubt David Letterman feels a bit used at this stage of the game. But, isn’t that what all talk show hosts do anyway? Use the lives of other people for fun and profit? So, Letterman has no room for complaint really, since he merely became the victim of his own show thanks to an uncooperative guest.

In a world where authenticity is blurred by television itself in countless “reality” TV shows or “talent” shows or “game” shows, what could make more of an impact or a deeper statement or more devastatingly relevant art than to walk freely through the metaphysics of “entertainment” making everyone believe you are not quite yourself these days? I can think of no higher expression of the art form.

Feeding off the natural mediums of our own culture, Joaquin Phoenix has become a mirror reflecting the reality of entertainment news and the entertainment industry back on to itself. If we feel a bit insulted or conned or a tinge of disingenuousness that is only telling is something about who we are as a society. We crave the insult (of others), the illusion, the glamorized fake so much that when someone takes the trouble to show our craving to us in a quite revolutionary way it may leave us feeling empty. That’s because it is all empty to begin with. Much ado about nothing.

By sheer coincidence it is in the spirit of this “living parable” type atmosphere through which Phoenix worked his art that now we find Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert planning a “political” rally in Washington D.C. Last night, these two comedians decided to hold actual rallies, appropriately enough, in "opposition" to one another. While Stewart's rally will offer a message of "return to sanity", Colbert will pull no punches and "keep fear alive". How appropriate. Insanity and fear are precisely the two words that most characterize America's political landscape to me.

Even though the events themselves are “real” and will, in fact, happen (that’s no joke) on October 30, they are nevertheless opportunities for mass expression of distaste for recent political rallies by such actual goofballs as Glenn Beck and Al Sharpton. What a marvelous opportunity to poke fun and let off a little political frustration toward the political system itself.

It is not without reason I haven’t blogged anything in recent months regarding politics except for the Elena Kagan Supreme Court nomination. The further polarization in American politics between the Obama Administration on one side and the likes of the ridiculous “Tea Party” movement on the other side leaves me completely frustrated, puzzled, and questioning the very legitimacy of this country’s experiment with democracy. We seem to be gravitating toward ever-greater levels of mediocrity and stupidity.

Of course, the greatest freedom of all is the freedom to be stupid. Choose any freedom you like and if you cannot envision and accept that freedom being expressed stupidly then you aren’t talking about freedom. You’re talking about someone’s agenda maybe, but you aren’t talking about being free. Freedom is only free if it can happen in a way you wouldn’t express yourself.

When I shared the announcement of these rallies with Jennifer and a few friends this morning, Jennifer’s initial response was “Is it real?” Awesome question. I’m not sure how to answer it. Was what Joaquin Phoenix did the last two years “real”? On one level it was completely fake, acted, a farce. On a deeper level, however, it was profoundly real because it made a statement about our culture that most people simply won’t get. They’re too (freely) stupid to get it.

Is what Stewart and Colbert are doing real? In the same sense it is a farce, a humorous take on all such marches in the past, particularly the recent past. But, it is also very genuine. I don’t know that 50,000 people will show up to watch two minor network TV comedians make us all laugh at how rediculous and pathetically polarized our nation’s political process has become, but I hope the turnout is better than expected. And I expect some great lines that are completely germane about how irrelevant the extreme Left and Right have become in this country and the profound damage they are inflicting on us all.

So, bravo to Stewart and Colbert for being absurd this coming October 30 because there’s no better time to be absurd, no better time for the expansion of “performance art” on a mass scale, than right now just before the mid-term elections. Fake, humorous rallies are precisely what this country needs and perhaps the greatest expression of our political freedom as well as the definitive elocution of the State of the Union.

And bravo to Joaquin Phoenix for showing us the way, the truth, and the light. Amen.

Late note: Some reports have it that Letterman knew about the Phoenix hoax all along. Dave himself has yet to confirm this.

Very Late Note: Letterman knew nothing about the gag. Phoenix confimed that the entire 18-month escapade was "a social experiment that commented on the relationship between American culture and celebrity." Brilliant stuff.

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