Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: A Documentary Hoax Revealed

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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.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • Alan Mendelsohn

    FOREIGNID: 29757
    Tom your comments were so trenchant and so perceptive. Documentary film making is both an art and a craft. We who do it for a living work hard to
    represent reality.To do journalism is a tough job. To find the right participants , to have them reveal their inner thoughts. To cut through spin and those who message track is what defines us. People trust us. They believe what we put on the screen is a reflection of reality.When somebody satirizes a documentary that is fair game. When somebody does a mockumentary that is also acceptable. If you can’t find real people saying real things to make your point make it fiction and that is also fine.Create your own characters. Create your own dialogue and if you wish to do it in documentary form that is also an acceptable form of art. But the viewer should know whether what he is seeing is real or constructed. If the lines are blurred then people will look at a documentary with a jaundiced eye. And question if there is such a thing.
    Leave the hoaxes to geniuses like ORson Wells .Now that was a great hoax.I applaud your convictions and your belief that integrity counts.

  • Darren B

    FOREIGNID: 29776
    Come on, now. Surely you aren’t saying that a film of this nature shouldn’t be attempted? I mean, I’m sure it’s no damn good, but certainly you’re not haughty enough to feign moral outrage and declare this film *beyond* unsuccessful, even going so far as to say that they’ve debased the great documentaries that came before it? This is how new genres are born, like it or not. Just declare it a failure, and let it crumble in the dusts of iniquity, my friend; don’t try to inflate it.

  • Danielle Vyas

    FOREIGNID: 29778
    I completely agree. I don’t watch Letterman and was unaware of this foolishness. I am an avid documentary fan and definitely do not like to be patronized by filmmakers or actors.
    Still like Phoenix and Affleck bros.

  • Jennifer Lane

    FOREIGNID: 29779
    @ Alan
    If it blurs the lines of reality and makes people question what is real, including legit documentaries, that is a good thing. People make biased documentaries all the time and tried to pass them off as 100% true, people should question them.
    I respect what documentary film makers do, and journalism, but questioning is important.

  • Paul

    FOREIGNID: 29781
    I’m amazed at how upset people have become over this. The point is that yes, it probably is just a buildup to a sub-standard mockumentary. However the statement made is still valid, we take this stuff way too seriously. The fact that it is even discussed at all is proof that the experiment worked. I don’t agree that the message is necessarily about self-destruction but rather our obsession with the witnessing of the act. Our obsession with celebrity has crossed into stranger areas than this already thanks to reality TV. Is this something to get upset over? I think it’s a sign of extreme narcissism for someone to get upset thinking that they attempted to pull one over on “you”.

  • Jim Higgins

    FOREIGNID: 29784
    Paul — right on!
    Lindsay Lohan and her legal troubles were in the news again today. As that whole thing has been unfolding over the past year all I can think about is how many of the same screwy things she did that I did when I was that age. And millions of young people right now are making similar mistakes and having similar struggles. But they aren’t under a microscope every moment of their lives with a crowd around them (virtually or literally) waiting for them to fail. It’s like a mob standing in front of a building with a person on the ledge, with people yelling, “Jump!! Jump!!”
    I think that’s the kind of thing I’m Still Here is looking to explore which is a valid and relevant subject. Whether or not it’s a good film is another issue. But Affleck and Phoenix are looking at and making a statement about a part of society and thats as good a reason to make a film as any.

  • Doc Soup Man

    FOREIGNID: 29787
    For a far more insightful look at celebrity and the twisted way we (especially the celebrity press) interact with stars like Phoenix, I’d recommend Steve Buscemi’s under appreciated movie, “Interview,” from 2007. Funny how Buscemi’s straight-up fictional depiction is more “real” than Affleck’s.

  • nikki P

    FOREIGNID: 29789
    I don’t agree that it “cheapens” documentary filmmaking. With all the “Reality” tv shows out there and staged PR stunts, etc. the term “documentary” lost it’s authority years ago. It was just a matter of time before someone took it to the next level. I agree with Jennifer, people SHOULD question the veracity of so call “reality” formats.
    I also think it’s rather brilliant for these filmmakers to exploit the hungry market for ‘celebrity meltdown’ stories. In the entertainment industry, ,ental illness, drug abuse and self destruction has already been commodified and this film simply plays that market.

  • Bee Gomez

    FOREIGNID: 30547
    Who actually believed for the slightest moment that this was going to be a “real” documentary? Let’s take a look at Catfish, okay?