I’m Still Here
In 2009, Joaquin Phoenix appeared on “The Late Show with David Letterman” to promote his film two lovers. He was dressed in a black suit, white shirt, and black tie. His hair was a mess, and his beard was overgrown and untamed. He wore sunglasses and chewed gum. He was fidgety and at times incoherent, aloof to the point of rude and awkward to the point of cringe.
he successfully pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes
Phoenix’s appearance and behavior befuddled his host and the audience. What he having a nervous breakdown? What hey high? What he playing a joke? It turned out he had fully immersed himself in a piece of performance art for the experimental movie I’m Still Here, directed by Casey Affleck. Staying in character for 18 months, he successfully pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes, confusing first the media and then later, the film’s audience.
At first glance, I’m Still Here might seem like a mockumentary, deconstructing the relationship between the image and the referent, subverting the traditional conventions of documentary to bring across its message about fame, identity and the nature of media representation. However, there is one very important distinction. Mockumentary requires an implicit contract with a knowing audience who are in on the joke and the social/political critique being expressed. instead, I’m Still Here intentionally conceals the information necessary for the audience to be in the loop, creating a state of disorientation and uncertainty.
I will admit to a similar level of disorientation in recent weeks when I have found my way onto a number of poker Twitter Spaces, where a man going by the monicker “Eden Rocks” has cultivated a peculiar sort of notoriety. I initially became aware of him via a clip that was circulating in which he was attacking poker community stalwart Donna Morton. Then I heard a clip of him “going toe to toe” with Daniel Negreanu, the pair throwing drunken barbs at one another in what was a pathetic and undignified display of male ego run amok.
Against my better judgment, I actually tuned into a space on Friday morning, hoping to get some reaction to Brian Rast’s third WSOP Poker Player’s Championship victory. Instead, I endured thirty minutes of reaction to Eden Rocks being 86ed from Caesars properties for his umpteenth infraction.
I have no idea whether he deserves his ban or not. There was apparently a minor altercation that led to him being booted from a $1/$3 cash game table last week. He was a bit rowdy on the $250,000 rail a few days ago. He entered the tag team event so his money is in play. It’s possible that the WSOP is over-stepped, but it’s also possible that he is correctly being deemed a nuisance.
Eaves dropping on an insane asylum
Drawing heavily on the post-documentary cultural movement, I’m Still Here was uncomfortable viewing. Phoenix disappeared into his character, fully committing to his descent from famed actor to mumbling rapper. The approach taken by him might have seemed excessive, but there was an artistic point being made that required the level of fidelity that he brought to the part. When what is being presented as real is a public figure sinking deeper and deeper into crisis, that ignites a critique of the audience, the media and the relationship between the two.
spiraling into tantrums like a jilted teenager
Similarly, the man behind Eden Rocks seems devoted to the part. From the bombastic rhetoric to the melodramatic outbursts, he revels in the spectacle, posting teasers and contriving cliffhangers for his nightly bouts of verbal diarrhea. He gets triggered when challenged, spiraling into tantrums like a jilted teenager and a moment later he breaks the fourth wall, claiming that it’s all part of the narrative.
As a viewer, I could not help but constantly question the authenticity of I’m Still Here and I experience that same discombobulating feeling when I listen to Eden Rocks. Like Andy Kaufman playing the absurdly foul-mouthed and overbearing lounge singer Tony Clifton, I don’t know what to take at face value. Eden Rocks likens his role to that of circus ringmaster, but having listened in for half an hour I felt more like I was eavesdropping on an insane asylum.
As I drank my Friday morning coffee, I knew that I was free to turn off the Twitter Space, but something compelled me to stay. I’ve heard others speak of the FOMO with regard to these Spaces, but it wasn’t that. Something was dawning on me about the Eden Rocks presentation: part Howard Stern radio talk show, part audience participation improv comedy, part Andy Kaufman performance art, part Charlie Kaufman metafiction.
This might be a rather obvious Johnny-come-lately observation in which case, my apologies to the Eden Rocks faithful who cottoned on long ago to what it is he is doing. I have done my best to resist attending these Spaces because they seem like dumpster fires. Having had some exposure now, I would tentatively acknowledge that alongside all the gossip pedaling, name calling, attention seeking, and anti-bully kumbayaing, there is also maybe, just maybe, something interesting going on.
Comedians are always experimenting with form and aside from the Kaufmans, different kinds of meta-comedy have been deployed by the likes of Woody Allen, Larry David, Garry Shandling, Tom Green, and Norm MacDonald. Now I’m not for a moment putting Eden Rocks in that category, but I am cautiously suggesting that behind the conversation hijacking, belligerence, and mania, there might be some method behind the madness.
Part of the meta
Plenty of people presumed that Phoenix was messing about at the beginning. However, his convincingly long performance made it less likely that it was all fake and more likely that we were watching something real. At that point, it was the audience that was on trial as a mirror was held up to our responses and reactions, making us squirm, challenging our pre-conceived notions as a man revered for his acting becomes a juggernaut of desolation, a narcissist interested only in himself. We were the ones laid bare against the backdrop of a definition defying narrative.
how we choose to respond is revolutionary
Eden Rocks, either by accident or design, is illuminating something about the character of the poker community. He has been controversial, obnoxious, contrite, and messianic in his delivery and people tune in to rail the train wreck. While we can never be sure exactly what is contrived and what is real, how we choose to respond is revelatory.
It’s very possible that I am giving Eden’s schtick way too much credit and that he’s actually a muttonheaded blowhard who uses the “meta” justification when he takes his listeners down a conversational cul de sac because he isn’t actually able to weigh in on the more substantive issues in poker. There’s also a chance that he’s something in between, that he is poker’s Worzel Gummidge: a just about fit-for-purpose scarecrow who comes to life and goes on adventures with his one suit and collection of interchangeable heads.
At the end of “The Late Show” interview, Letterman quipped: “Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.” I don’t know if Eden Rocks is really there, but I do know that by writing about him, I am now part of the meta.