How Should We Feel About Joaquin Phoenix?

By now, you’re probably aware that actor Joaquin Phoenix’s highly publicized public meltdown over the last year was a put-on.  It was all staged to add an air of intrigue to his faux documentary collaboration with actor/director Casey Affleck, I’m Still Here.  The film purports to chronicle Phoenix’s efforts to reinvent himself as a rapper after retiring from acting in 2009.  Here’s what Roger Ebert had to say about the film:

“As a documentary it is the sad record of a man lost in the wilderness of drugs, ego and narcissism.  As a fake documentary—a fiction film—it is a rather awe-inspiring record of a piece of high-risk performance art played out in public by Phoenix and Affleck over more than a year.”

Whether you see the film or not—and it grossed less than $1000 a screen in its first week of release—this hoax or experiment or whatever you want to call it is an opportunity to consider our society’s relationship to celebrity.  Since Phoenix’s train wreck of a Letterman appearance in 2009, we’ve watched a gifted actor with a fine track record and little history of trouble careen into a professional and possibly literal death spiral.  How surreal it must have been for Phoenix to witness the world’s reaction to his freefall from what was actually a completely lucid vantage point.

It’s certainly a relief to all that Phoenix’s bizarre behavior was premeditated and in character.  While it’s fashionable to say now “I always knew it was a stunt,” and such speculation was rampant from the beginning, it certainly seemed possible to most observers that he was on the path to self-destruction.

The ratio of sympathy to scorn and concern to indifference in the media’s response was balanced enough to offer no stunning insights about our celebrity-obsessed culture.  At least not at first glance.  That might be disappointing to Affleck and Phoenix, but I have a feeling that their audacious endeavor will be analyzed in university classrooms and scholarly texts for years to come.

To me, what is most interesting about the whole affair is that it underscores a larger truth about humanity.  The closer the proximity between human beings, the stronger the kinship and understanding they feel for each other—whether they like it or not.  You may find a co-worker obnoxious and wish you never had to see him again, but news of his unexpected passing will probably rattle you in a deeper way than learning that an earthquake has killed thousands on the other side of the world.

The unexpected death of one of my neighbors, four years ago, still crosses my mind today.  She died of natural causes at an age earlier than most, but not unthinkable.  Though we exchanged no more than a handful of words, she was always very kind to me.

I don’t know Joaquin Phoenix in the way that I know my neighbors.  The representation of him that I know is a public persona, abstract and artificial.  I can like that persona or not like it.  I can respect it, root for it, or dismiss it.  But he is not someone I know, and thus any relationship I have to him is inherently impersonal.

Public figures are often dismayed at the lack of empathy they receive from the public.  The truth is, we just aren’t wired to bring the same warmth and understanding to the idea of a person that we do to a person we actually interact with.  This must be a survival instinct.  For example, if we grieved deeply every time we learned that human beings had died somewhere in the world, every day would be an agonizing experience.  We’d be useless much of the time.

Finding compassion for strangers is a vital part of being the civilized, transcendent creatures that each of us are capable of being.  Finding a healthy balance between caring and carrying on is an essential part of our progress as a species.

However, in a technologically close-knit world where we are increasingly aware of other people without truly knowing them, we can’t expect our instincts to evolve at the same pace as technology.  Our investment in others extends in ever-widening rings that begin with our families and grow more diffuse the farther from our “tribe” they extend.

While technology may bring a star into your living room every week, it does not make you friends.  Celebrities exist in a strange and often uncomfortable zone of inappropriate adulation and disconcerting detachment, as they are known but not known, intimately understood but unfairly judged.  To live a healthy life, they can never expect their broadcast image to forge a real bond with real people.  This may be unnerving, but it’s less a sign of a sick society than a lingering biological truth.

Seeing a lot of cynical amusement in the public reaction to his self-immolation, Phoenix might consider this a test of compassion failed.  But it doesn’t matter whether we knew his antics were his own or those of a character he was playing.  Movies and other media turn celebrities into characters every day.  Inevitably, celebrities are more character than person to those who perceive them only through media.

For his audience, Phoenix’s plight could never be as real as what’s happening next door.

— Stogie Joe