Joaquin Phoenix and David Letterman

Joaquin Phoenix with David Letterman in 2009.

This week, actor Joaquin Phoenix will go on the Late Show and he and David Letterman are going to share some laughs. They will wink and nudge and roll their eyes, indicating that they are being sincerely ironic about the sincerity of what they are talking about — namely, how Phoenix put on quite a show the last time he was with Letterman, and how it was all a part of his two-year simulated "performance" as a celebrity spiraling out of control.

All of this, of course, was in service of what I call a “gotcha documentary”: I’m Still Here, directed by Phoenix’s brother-in-law and fellow actor, Casey Affleck. The documentary chronicles Phoenix’s ridiculous foray into rap, drugs and prostitution. The thing that everyone (including me) wondered was: How real is it? Where does it lie on the spectrum between fact and fiction? Now that the film has been released and ill-received and is teetering on oblivion, Affleck recently came clean to The New York Times that it was, indeed, all a performance. But, he says, he’s confounded by how irritated everyone is by his film. "I never intended to trick anybody,” Affleck told the Times. “The idea of a quote, hoax, unquote, never entered my mind.”

Sigh. Don’t you get it, Casey? If your "documentary" is about the artifice of celebrity and identity, then you should be aware that there are those few who are inside the celebrity circle (including you and Phoenix) and those who are on the outside (the rest of us). And for you to use a little misdirection by hijacking the documentary genre in order to teach us all a lesson about the dangers of putting celebrities like yourself on a pedestal is both arrogant and manipulative. It’s also counterproductive because it reinforces the divide. Oh, and what’s also really annoying is that it cheapens the craft of documentary filmmaking.

What I’m calling the “gotcha documentary” relies on keeping audiences in the dark about what’s real while the director steers them along. Most of the time, with regular docs, directors must painfully navigate their inevitable manipulations of reality. And then there are those great directors, like Errol Morris, who go head-first into exploring the fact/fiction divide. But now there are these jokers who exploit it.

How can Affleck be so naïve? I am sure Phoenix will have a moment on Letterman when he’ll say something to the effect of, "Wait, seriously, we meant to make a serious statement about celebrity and culture and…" and Letterman will widen his eyes or make a crack which will then cast in doubt anything Phoenix was just saying.

In truth, I genuinely believe that Phoenix and Affleck do have interesting things to say about the trappings of celebrity, but their way of doing it has been all wrong. I’ve said it before: for a smart documentary about the meaning of celebrity that also teases the divide between reality and fiction, I’d recommend The Kid Stays in the Picture.

Unfortunately, Phoenix and Affleck haven’t contributed much to a greater understanding of identity and truth in our oversaturated media age, which reminds me of another gotcha-doc out now, Catfish, which is doing a similarly clumsy job, largely because it’s trying so desperately to capitalize on this tender soft spot between reality and fiction. That film’s have-it-all-ways ad campaign is, "Not based on a true story, not inspired by true events, just true." Affleck could have used the same line to promote his film. Either way, although it sounds pretty cool, it’s pretty much meaningless.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen