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Running Away From the Circus

I'm Still Here has had tongues wagging for two years now, ever since the bedraggled star made an appearance at a Miami nightclub, rapped ineptly , and fell off the stage. It was reported that Affleck, Phoenix's brother-in-law, was working on a mockumentary that would chart the actor's attempt to leave Hollywood and break into the hip-hop world. Both parties strenuously denied that the doc was in any way mock, but the film does little to dispel that notion.

In what looks like a deliberate attempt to pander to, and subvert, the media's thirst for celebrity scandals — and especially celebrity breakdown scandals — we see Phoenix courting the services of a shell-shocked P Diddy for his monotone ramblings, snort cocaine, order hookers from the internet and, famously, stun David Letterman's audience with a zombiefied guest slot. It simply looks too good to be true. When he was put on the spot at the film's packed press conference, Affleck fielded questions with the agility of a master batsman. Asked directly how he would answer questions about the film's authenticity, about what was real and what was not real, he answered with a very telling remark.

But as to whether the film is a hoax or not, he was standing firm. When we meet later in the afternoon, the year-old actor-director is friendly enough but very, very cautious. As well he might with two civil cases of sexual harassment hanging over his head, filed by the film's producer, Amanda White, and its cinematographer, Magdalena Gorka. He has his publicist with him at all times; unsurprisingly, the subject is never mentioned but Affleck is just as edgy about the movie, frequently hesitating and using phrases that, after an afternoon of TV interviews, already seem rote. But what was interesting to me, for sure, was the idea of someone who was transitioning from being a famous, successful actor to being a musician, trying to do something they'd never done.

But like all stories, that was just the hanger. It was about other things; I was more excited about the human things that were onscreen. So how did they decide when they were going to shoot and what they were going to shoot? Affleck squirms just a little in his canvas director's chair. We've been close for a while. So there was already a lot of time spent together.

And it evolved organically. It began with me just picking up a little video camera no bigger than your tape recorder and starting to film him. Just trying to see what kind of personality was emerging when the camera was on.

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It's always so different, y'know: who someone is when they're talking to you and who they are when you point a light in their face. Having indulged and danced with Affleck's "official" banter, I ask what Affleck actually thinks of Phoenix's music? Affleck senses the true agenda in the question; the tracks Phoenix records in the film are obviously terrible, so why would anyone want to document what's clearly a fool's mission?

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He's a talented musician. He's been making music for a long time. Er, he's been doing music since I met him, which was almost 20 years ago, and some of it I've really liked. He's creative, he's smart, he's capable, he's hard working. So when he applies himself to other fields, other areas, he does well. Some of his music I liked, some of it I didn't like.

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I think he feels the same way. He mulls over the question: "Er, he's driven. Any film like this is going to depend on the energy of the central characters, and it had to be an energy that would sustain the interest of an audience. And he has that kind of energy. And so, I think, that's what I found watching it. He was an exhilarating, compelling figure.

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And then they'll feel like, 'Oh, wait a minute, that didn't come out right,' and they'll say something else. And it's this downward spiral of trying to correct the last thing that they said … In this case, in the story of … In the story, I think there was something that needed to be expressed and that was actually, in fact, what gave me such … y'know … the ability to make such an intimate portrait. Because there was something that wanted to come out, and once a little bit had been seen it was like, 'Well, now I'd better let everything be seen, so people understand, y'know …".

Well, no. But in a way it does. And then, with just seconds to go, I ask perhaps the most pertinent question of all: fake or not, is this his subject's attempt to destroy his celebrity image for good? He even goes onstage at clubs and spits his rhymes in front of an audience. Later, he meets with Sean Combs about having Diddy produce hissolo debut. A: No.

At one performance he continuously flips off an audience member.

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  6. Then he jumps into the crowd to start a fight, after which he proceeds to puke in a toilet on camera for roughly one minute. A: Not really. A: He was in Washington, yes. But Phoenix slept through the whole inauguration in his hotel room. He was invited to an inauguration party but declined. A: Oh, God yes. A: Most likely. Or, You know, I really should be filming all of this?

    And where has Phoenix been recently? Off the grid! After the film was finished, we stopped seeing the guy show up on YouTube. But it is most likely some sort of performance art. And with performance art, yes, Phoenix probably became this character that he created. The films even addresses the controversy by interviewing an Entertainment Weekly editor who swears she has sources confirming the film is a hoax. A: We see an edited version of the full interview. Later, his actions lead to one of the most disturbing things that I have ever seen on film.

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