Cut off in the prime of manhood, he was cheated of that final phase of development which permits a man to harmonize his warring selves. Operating under a curse for the major part of his life, fighting with all his powers to find egress into the clear, open spaces of his being, he is beaten to earth for the last time just when one feels that the clouds were lifting.
—Henry Miller, The Time of the Assassins: A Study of Rimbaud. Banner quote on “Rio’s Attic,” a memorial website for River Phoenix.
The fantasy proposed by I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’s unsuccessful biopic of Bob Dylan, is that celebrities are blank screens onto whom we project hopes and fears. In Haynes’s film, Dylan is played by six different actors, including Richard Gere, who plays a cowboy; Cate Blanchett, who plays a playboy; Ben Whishaw, who plays a character named Arthur Rimbaud; and Heath Ledger, who died two months after the film’s release from an overdose of Oxycontin, Valium, Xanax, Restoril, Unisom, and Vicodin.
It’s easy to see why Haynes favored this approach. Dylan, who achieved fame while still essentially an adolescent, strayed from the typical singer-songwriter career path. He has performed under a number of pseudonyms over the years, among them Elston Gunnn, Bob Landy, Blind Boy Grunt, Boo Wilbury, Lucky Wilbury, Robert Milkwood Thomas, Sergei Petrov, and Jack Frost. It’s hard to say who he really is.
Haynes is best known for films with queer themes, like Velvet Goldmine, a biopic of the David Bowie avatar “Ziggy Stardust.” When Haynes originally pitched the idea for I’m Not There, he was advised by Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager, to send along a one-page proposal that didn’t include the word “genius.” Haynes took Rosen’s advice and opted for obliqueness. “I is someone else,” Haynes noted in the proposal’s opening line, channeling Rimbaud. He went on:
If a film were to exist in which the breadth and flux of a creative life could be experienced, a film that could open up as opposed to consolidating what we think we already know walking in, it could never be within the tidy arc of a master narrative. The structure of such a film would have to be a fractured one, with numerous openings and a multitude of voices, with its prime strategy being one of refraction, not condensation. Imagine a film splintered between seven separate faces — old men, young men, women, children — each standing in for spaces in a single life.
Getting compared to Rimbaud, of course, is flattering for anyone, and geniuses, much like nongeniuses, have receptive egos.
But while few things are more titillating than a hollow shell, no one is actually a cipher. Celebrity may disfigure personality, but it doesn’t obliterate it; creative lives are not so different from other lives — they just command more attention.
Creative deaths may not be so different, either; spotlight or no, everyone loves a corpse. Dylan, though, is unusual: motorcycle accident aside, he’s one of the few geniuses of his kind who could kill off a personality, and various forms of unwanted attention, without having to kill himself.
I don’t want to die in a car accident. When I die it will be a glorious day. It will probably be a waterfall.
Shortly after 1 AM on October 31, 1993, a dispatcher for the LAPD received a 911 call from a pay phone outside the Viper Room, a West Hollywood nightclub owned and operated by the actor Johnny Depp. On the other end of the line, a young man’s voice was trembling. The caller was in a panic.
“It’s my brother,” the caller pleaded, “he’s having seizures at Sunset and Larrabee. Please come here.”
“OK, calm down a little bit. What’s the address?”
The caller was gasping. “You must get here, PLEASE. You must get here.”
“OK, take it easy. OK?”
“I’m thinking he’s had Valium or something. I don’t know.” The caller’s voice became urgent, seeming to register how little time remained. “You must get over here, PLEASE! BECAUSE HE’S DYING.”
The caller began to cry.
“Slow down, OK?”
He became hostile. “OK, what? WHAT? WHAT? Just get the ambulance over here.”
“OK. We have help on the way.”
“I know.” The caller did not explain. “I thank you guys.” His tone slid into eerie tranquility.
“Where’s your brother right now?”
“He’s lying on the cement.”
“Is he breathing?”
“I don’t know.”
Shortly after the medics arrived, the brother died. He was 23 years old. The caller, whose conversation with the dispatcher would soon be transcribed in newspapers and broadcast on radio stations all over the world, was 19.
The reason I keep making movies is I hate the last thing I did. I’m trying to rectify my wrongs.
On September 12, 2010, a previously unknown production company called They Are Going to Kill Us Productions released I’m Still Here: The Lost Years of Joaquin Phoenix, an unusual, unpopular, unapologetic masterpiece directed by Casey Affleck.
I’m Still Here documents the personal collapse of a character named Joaquin Phoenix, an A-list martyr who tumbles from the heights of industry success to abject, drug-addled paranoia. The film begins with Phoenix’s surprising announcement that he’s giving up his lucrative film career in a bid to become a hip-hop star. The next hundred minutes trace the consequences of this decision through reality-style footage of Phoenix burrowing in car seats, harassing assistants, and stalking around his dreary Los Angeles estate.
Over the course of the film, which condenses the events of an entire year, Phoenix sprouts a Jim Morrison beard, snorts cocaine, fattens his physique, victimizes his entourage, rambles incoherently, raps abominably, stumbles, vomits, gets shit on, cavorts with prostitutes (though without having sex), and subjects himself to recurring episodes of humiliation at the hands of other highly successful males, most notably the producer, rapper, and fashion impresario Sean Combs. The sequence of clips doesn’t add up to a plot as much as to a diagnosis: Phoenix’s performance is a masterful depiction of manic depression.
The critics, however, did not like I’m Still Here. Their complaints were epistemological. Was it a documentary, or a hoax? If, as many suspected, it was a “mockumentary” — by then an established comic genre — then why perpetrate so much deceit?
When Phoenix revealed in late 2008 that Two Lovers, a James Gray melodrama, would be his last film, the news was met with alarm. Then again, Hollywood had gotten used to unusual behavior from Phoenix, who had never excelled in the limelight. Shortly before the release of Gladiator (2000), in which Phoenix delivered an Oscar-nominated performance as a parricidal Roman prince, he lashed out at a reporter inquiring whom Phoenix would be taking to the premiere. “My significant other is myself right now,” Phoenix snapped, “which is what happens when you suffer from multiple personality disorder and self-obsession.” (He took his mom.) In 2005, shortly before the release of Walk the Line, which won him a second Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the crossover country star Johnny Cash, Phoenix checked into rehab for alcoholism. Months later, he skidded his car into a Hollywood canyon. He was pulled from the wreckage by the director Werner Herzog, who happened to be passing by.
The movie was painful. The three of them were not recognizable to me as my parents in any way. But the scenes were recognizable, and the storyline, so the whole thing was fraught with sadness because they all had just died.
—Roseanne Cash on Walk the Line
When River Phoenix’s autopsy came back two weeks after his death, it revealed traces of heroin, cocaine, cannabis, valium, and “Persian Brown” — a meth and opium concoction then popular on the Sunset Strip. His fans were stunned; River had a reputation for healthy living. He was a vegan, a spiritualist, an animal rights activist. He didn’t drink.
Around Hollywood, River’s chemical entanglements were an open secret. River had been doing drugs at least since My Own Private Idaho (1991), a Gus Van Sant film in which River played a gay street hustler, a breakout role that ended up being the performance of his career. Initially, his agent had refused the role, so Van Sant hand-delivered the script to River, who was staying at the Chateau Marmont, the infamous Hollywood Hills hotel where John Belushi died.
At the time of River’s death, Van Sant claimed he had not been aware of River’s substance abuse problems. Four years later, Van Sant wrote Pink, a roman à clef in which the narrator, a middle-aged director with an affection for charismatic striplings, expresses grief for not having done more to protect his favorite protégé from a lethal overdose.
In the days immediately following River’s death, media attention focused on the fate of his two unfinished film projects: Dark Blood— an outlandish drama in which River played the part of “Boy,” a hermit who lives on a nuclear testing site and makes kachina dolls while waiting for the world to end — and Interview with the Vampire. River had been cast as a young reporter, referred to simply as “the boy” in the 1978 Anne Rice novel upon which the screenplay is based; the vampires were played by Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. After River’s death, his role went to Christian Slater. Dark Blood, though, had eleven days of filming to go, and was abandoned. The makers of Interview with the Vampire decided to dedicate their film to River. The makers of Dark Blood decided to sue River’s mother for $6 million.
Shortly before his death, River had told friends that Interview with the Vampire would be his last film. He had decided to abandon Hollywood, which he never liked, and join his sister Rain in pursuing a career in music. River hoped that touring with their band, Aleka’s Attic, would provide an escape hatch from the claustrophobia of the film industry. Around the same time, River promised his father, who had been living in Costa Rica, that he would join him there and help him open a vegan restaurant.
“I’ve kept my ego and my happiness completely separate from my work,” River once told a reporter. “In fact, if I see my face on the cover of a magazine I go into remission. I shut myself out and freak.”
But River had a habit of saying different things to different people. “I have a lot of chameleon qualities,” he once admitted. “I get very absorbed in my surroundings.” In 1991, shortly after the release of My Own Private Idaho, he told a reporter that he lost his virginity at age 4. Less than two weeks before his death, River told a French journalist that he hadn’t always been truthful when talking to the media. “I have lied and changed stories and contradicted myself left and right, so that at the end of the year you could read five different articles and say, ‘This guy is schizophrenic.’”
For River’s fans, his proteanism was proof of purity. Because he was unknowable, everyone felt like they knew him.
“I’ll never forgive Johnny Depp,” a friend recently announced with a grave look. “River was the most beautiful of them all.” My friend has never met Johnny Depp. It seems unlikely he ever will. But his beef with Depp and his estimation of River is shared by hundreds of disciples who, nineteen years later, continue to maintain Tumblrs and message boards dedicated to River’s memory. The River Phoenix memorial sites, which straddle the line between Christian devotion and child pornography, take up the media’s intuition that River died for all our sins — the sins of America, the sins of Hollywood, the sins of youth. Five months after River’s overdose, Kurt Cobain shot himself. It’s often noted that the two never met, as if that were an odd thing.
Joaquin, who was neither an anonymous fan nor a leering mentor, was horrified by the aftermath of his brother’s death. “It was terrible,” he later told a reporter. “They photographed him in his coffin. And these hysterical girls who were at the funeral almost fell into the grave.”
Joaquin vowed to stay away from acting, but was eventually persuaded to return to the fold by Gus Van Sant, who cast him as Nicole Kidman’s psychotic groupie in To Die For. It was during filming that he became close friends with costar Casey Affleck, who in 2006 married Joaquin’s youngest sister, Summer Phoenix.
the bosse of the
upper and lower tributarys.
Goodbye. It’s been good
to Sea you. May you live
—from the Pink dedication
The main character of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere is Johnny Marco, a film star played by Stephen Dorff whose life is stuck in a cul-de-sac even as his career, to all appearances, is “taking off.” The Dorff character’s predicament is underscored by the film’s lengthy opening shot, which shows a race car zooming around in circles in a sunless desert. After a couple of minutes of watching the car, we encounter Dorff at the Chateau Marmont, where he’s staring listlessly at a pair of strippers straddling a pole that has been wheeled into his bedroom for the morning of his birthday. Shortly thereafter, the Dorff character’s ex-wife stops by to drop off their daughter, played by Elle Fanning, who’s scheduled to hang out for a couple weeks with her illustrious father.
A few days later, Dorff receives a phone call that has occurred several times in the history of film, though potentially never in the history of the world. As Dorff paces along the balcony, we hear his ex-wife say she won’t be coming back to pick up Fanning. “I’m going away for a while. . . . I need a little time.” This scenario of maternal abandonment, memorably presented in Kramer vs. Kramer, provides the narrative circumstances required for us to follow Dorff as he steps back from the abyss of eminence and finds authenticity in the incestuous embrace of his beautiful tween offspring.
Coppola’s point seems to be that Hollywood empties the soul. The only route back to grace is the family. Opposing the sacral father-daughter relation, whose genuineness the film signals most directly in an acoustic rendition of “I’ll Try Anything Once,” a song by the Strokes, are all those things Coppola takes to be inauthentic: genital sexuality, gatherings of more than four people, and, importantly, the spoken word. Those who say the most in the film — reporters, PR people, and other plebeian intermediaries who mooch off the fame of others — are babblers; their words are noise. As with Lost in Translation, another Coppola film anchored around a silent heroine, much of the verbal content in Somewhere consists of unsubtitled utterances in a language that’s foreign to the film’s characters. Sentences provide a medium for business transactions and other unlovely chores, but they have no role in intimate communication. Dorff and Fanning’s bond is conveyed first through looks, and second through an accompanying soundtrack propelled by Coppola’s husband, Thomas Mars, lead singer of the French indie-rock band Phoenix — a man whose interest in words is so circumscribed that he has chosen to conduct his career in a language he has never mastered.
Some critics, compelled by Coppola’s vision of aphasic lethargy, applauded the film for exposing the hollowness of the film industry. Whether Somewhere does this is debatable. One might argue it pays pretty obsequious homage to that industry through its aestheticization of vaporousness, a quality popularly thought to accompany movie-star lifestyles. The filming of vacancy, of course, is a tradition, and Somewhere achieves it by lifting visual sequences from other films — 8½; Lolita; Paris, Texas — appropriations that seem closer to plagiarism than recontextualization.
Like many stars, Coppola has good reasons to despise Hollywood, and even better ones to love it. Daughter to one of the most successful directors in the history of film, Coppola’s birth home was a twenty-eight-room mansion overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Her family’s second home, bought with proceeds from the Godfather franchise, was a 1,700-acre estate in wine country. While promoting Somewhere, she mentioned that at some point her father had apparently tried to buy, or maybe actually briefly owned, the Chateau Marmont.
In 1986, shortly after Coppola turned 15, she received a phone call informing her that Gio, her 22-year-old brother, had been killed in a speedboating accident. Gio had been working on Gardens of Stone, their father’s latest movie. On set, he had befriended Griffin O’Neal, troubled son of the troubled Hollywood star Ryan O’Neal. Twenty-one-year-old Griffin, like many children raised in Hollywood, had led a fast life, slipping in and out of rehab. On this particular day, he was drunk and drove the boat he and Gio were riding into a tug line. Griffin managed to duck, but Gio was slammed onto the metal deck and died instantly.
“It was such a pointless death,” Coppola later said. “It is hard to imagine there was any reason for it, though it changed all our lives forever.” Coppola has made a career of melancholic understatement, and while her films are often interpreted in light of her eminent father, it may make more sense to read them as an anguished response to fraternal death. In The Virgin Suicides, a devout mother is so worried about her blond, beautiful, alluring daughters growing up too quickly that she tries to prevent them from growing at all, which directly leads to their deaths.
Gio died too young to obtain eminence or to mature as a personality, so Coppola honors her brother’s stillborn identity by stunting her own. Her characters, like her elusive off-set persona, invoke elsewhere by not being really here: ethereality pays tribute to dolor.
In the few available accounts of Gio’s life, his primary defining trait seems to have been an interest in cars. Eleanor Coppola, in her memoir, describes a night after his death, when she imagines him “racing among the stars in a red Ferrari” — an image that seems like a version of the opening sequence of Somewhere. The film is all surfaces, and therein lies the depth. According to the morbid principles of Hollywood mythos, the shell approximates the corpse.
I don’t want to be comforted by his death. I think it’s right that I’m angry about it, angry at the people who helped him stay sick, and angry at River.
—Martha Plimpton, River’s ex-girlfriend, at his funeral
“I’ll never forgive Joaquin Phoenix for overshadowing Two Lovers,” complained Richard Brody, the New Yorker’s film editor. He wasn’t the only one offended by Phoenix’s hijinks. In February 2009, shortly after the release of Two Lovers, Phoenix appeared on David Letterman’s show to promote the movie. By that time, however, he had transformed into something different from the hunky specimen of the Two Lovers trailer. As he slid into a chair opposite Letterman, bearded and glutted, chewing gum and wearing sunglasses, he looked less like Johnny Cash than a cross between Borat and Slavoj Žižek.
Phoenix’s comportment was equally bizarre — he was hostile, shaky, and seemingly on the verge of tears. He appeared either drugged or insane, or both. He insisted that he was serious about his rap career — he would perform under the handle “JP” — and asked whether Letterman would book him as a musical act. Caught off guard, Letterman fought back. “Tell us about your time with the Unabomber,” he suggested. Phoenix responded with scary silence.
Eventually, Letterman showed a clip from Two Lovers, a film in which Phoenix plays Leonard Kraditor, a young man suffering from bipolar disorder. In his review of the film, Richard Brody called Two Lovers “majestic,” deeming it the fourth-best movie of 2009, tied with Judd Apatow’s Funny People. Two Lovers begins with a botched suicide attempt. After Kraditor’s fiancée discovers the couple is at risk for conceiving a child with Tay Sachs disease, she leaves him; Kraditor decides to jump off a bridge. The bridge isn’t very tall, and he survives. In the weeks that follow, Kraditor is confronted with two women apparently meant to correspond to the two poles of his personality: the wild side — played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who delivers an older, frumpier version of the crazy-person performance she gave eight years before in The Anniversary Party — and the subdued side — played by Vinessa Shaw, whose character is the scioness of a Jewish dry cleaning fortune.
Neither manic nor depressive, Phoenix’s Kraditor charms his love interests with arty oddness, conveying depths of sensitivity familiar to fans of Russell Crowe’s performance as the schizophrenic game theorist John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. Deferring to a Hollywood tradition, Two Lovers in effect confuses bipolar disorder with Asperger’s syndrome, a condition that wouldn’t undergo its own official glamorization until later that year with the Hugh Dancy star vehicle Adam.
Phoenix told Letterman he hadn’t bothered to see Two Lovers; Letterman huffed at what he took to be Phoenix’s charade. At the end of the interview Letterman said with disappointment, “Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.”
But Phoenix really was there, and it’s tempting to believe he was telling the truth. To those familiar with the rhythms and cadence of actually existing manic depression, Two Lovers, otherwise a schmaltzy trifle, is indeed quite painful to watch. The irony is that at the same time Phoenix was badly impersonating a crazy person on screens across America, he was very successfully and disturbingly imitating a crazy person in his everyday life. The footage collected in I’m Still Here cannot be described as a mockumentary, not in the genial manner of a Christopher Guest project. In their zeal to uncover the “truth” behind the film, the critics missed the movie’s deeper truth: I’m Still Here exposes its audience to a spectrum of anger and pathos that forestalls the literal-minded question of whether Phoenix’s performance was motivated by a genuine mental breakdown, or by the impulse to recreate such a breakdown and map its public consequences.
The film’s effect is distressing. Its reality-style scenes resemble footage from Jackass or Cops rather than the fastidiously wrought images we associate with “cinema” — but instead of inducing the usual schadenfreude, these pranks leave the viewer feeling prickly and unnerved. The creatures who slither around Hollywood are insulated by fame, not oppressed by it. They worry about each other, not the public. Like other tacky rich people, they live in large and unglamorous structures in the hilly sections of Los Angeles. Actors, PR professionals, club promoters, TV reporters, hangers-on, and YouTube critics are all shown to be callow predators who flatter the powerful and devour the vulnerable. In other words, Hollywood is exactly as depraved as any other sector of society.
“I live a really boring life,” Phoenix told a reporter in 2007. “I’m much more clichéd, pathetic, and pretentious than you would probably give me credit for.”
Critics resented the stunt because they thought Phoenix and his codirector Casey Affleck were having a laugh at their expense. They were right to feel targeted, wrong about the hoax. There’s no cynicism in I’m Still Here. The film is an act of revenge.
At the beginning of I’m Still Here, the audience is shown what looks like a family video. A majestic waterfall is emptying into a lush, green pond. The screen tells us the footage is from Huigra, Panama, where the Phoenix children partially grew up, traveling with their parents through Latin America as missionaries for a Christian cult called the Children of God; at that time, the Phoenixes were called the Bottoms — it was only after they left the scandal-ridden sect that the Bottoms took on the surname “Phoenix,” to symbolize their rebirth.
In the video, the camera zooms in on a small boy climbing up a cliff to the waterfall’s summit. The cameraman seems to be the child’s father. The boy looks fragile, and the camera shakes as he fumbles over the rocks. Eventually he makes it to the top of the cliff and peers down, teetering over the edge. The footage is worrisome — the boy seems to be in danger. We expect the father to put down the camera and yell up to the boy to come down. He doesn’t. Instead, the camera remains trained on the boy, who jumps off the cliff and into the water, making a huge splash. The father claps.
A version of the scene is reprised at the end of the film, but this time, instead of a young boy, it’s Joaquin Phoenix — the enlarged, hairy version — who first dives, then comes back up and walks into a river after visiting a man who seems to be his father at a restaurant in Costa Rica. As Joaquin trudges forward in the opaque green water, we no longer see his face, only his bloated body. As the shot goes on and on, Joaquin goes deeper and deeper, until he finally disappears. He does not emerge from the river rebaptized to begin a new life. Rather, he wipes himself out, burying himself in the river, or perhaps in River, the little boy fascinated by waterfalls whose death was greeted by the world with thunderous applause — his greatest performance. The screen goes black, and we’re confronted with the film’s title, as if in rebuke: I’m Still Here.
Joaquin didn’t make a biopic of his brother. Instead, he emulated him by disintegrating, letting himself be humiliated by everyone, ritually disappearing, and yet playing out River’s fantasy of saying “fuck you” to Hollywood and escaping into music before it was too late.
The film’s title indicates that Joaquin, unlike River, is still living, still stuck here after his brother’s death to deal with the cultural madness that River escaped. (Recently, the director of Dark Blood, George Sluizer, announced he would be recutting and releasing the nineteen-year-old footage with the help of Joaquin, whom he planned to ask to do some necessary voiceovers for River’s character. The Phoenix family issued a statement saying they’d never communicated with the director and had no intention of participating.) The title also quotes the song that Joaquin performs in what might be called the movie’s climax, during his last hopeless performance as JP, before a packed nightclub in Miami. Despite evidence in the film that Joaquin’s musical foray is demented, we know from his earlier work, not least in Walk the Line, that Joaquin is, in fact, a pretty talented musician. And the song’s chorus is weirdly affecting:
I’m still here,
through these years,
I don’t scare
Don’t even fear
I never crack, never,
I don’t give, never
I’ll live forever, I’m the one
God’s chosen — bitch!
Reenacting River is also an undoing of River. Whereas River’s fans and mentors pay him homage by beaming his memory through the magic lantern of Hollywood myth— an innocent youth struck down by jealous gods — Joaquin turns against myth, crushing the machinery of celebrity adoration that contributed to his brother’s death and now corrupts his brother’s memory. Of the two of them, he’s the one God’s chosen — the psychotic idiot over the sacrificial lamb.
Last summer, I traveled to my parents’ cottage in northern Michigan and forced my mother to watch I’m Still Here. We are not, as a pair, generally fond of films. I used to hate watching movies, and my mother still does. All the same, she sat spellbound through the film’s hundred and eight minutes. She said she had never seen an actor so accurately mimic the behavior of her middle son.
For the last decade, my family has been in mourning, not for my grandparents, though they have all recently passed away, but for my older brother, Matt, a gaunt and handsome young man, recently turned 30, who descended into madness eleven years ago.
It’s a strange species of loss. After all, Matt’s still here. He walks and talks, but bears little resemblance to the charismatic taskmaster who haunts my earliest memories. That guy led me to victory in water gun fights, shamed me at ping-pong, warned me to say no to drugs, and chauffeured me to hockey practice. That man starred in The Tempest, dominated Model UN, seduced the prettiest girls. Now Matt’s moods swing chaotically, tracking both the volatility of his capriciously monitored lineup of medicines and general shifts in the zeitgeist. Even the most pleasant version of Matt — the one that usually shows up in early spring, roused from the dejection of winter but only beginning to ramp up to the derangement of summer — couldn’t be confused with the high schooler who went off to college one year and never really came back.
Some vestiges remain. Matt still loves movies, for example, unlike my mother and me. Often now he’ll curl up in the basement of my parents’ house and watch On Demand movies from dusk till dawn. Mostly he likes thrillers, especially when they have international themes. His favorite is probably the Bourne franchise, a trilogy that follows the peregrinations of a young amnesiac, played by Matt Damon (a top contender for a role in To Die For, the role that ultimately went to Phoenix), who washes up on a beach and is then pursued by the CIA through European financial centers. He wouldn’t like to admit it, but sometimes when Matt’s really enjoying a film — when it’s really working — he lets the plot seep into his psyche and adopts the characters’ predicaments as his own.
For example, he must have felt awfully similar to Jason Bourne the summer he turned up at a bank in Zurich, a lost American who couldn’t quite remember how he’d gotten to Switzerland. He must have been even more cinematically stimulated the following spring when Secret Service agents came to our parents’ home to ask about a letter Matt had sent to a justice on Michigan’s Supreme Court. President Bush was in danger, Matt explained in the letter, but his assassin wasn’t going to be an Arab. It would be a well-dressed woman from the suburbs of Detroit. The drama was cut short when the agents failed to arrest our mother, accepting her explanation that Matt’s flair for narrative extravagance posed no threat to national security.
When art fails to imitate life, even the unafflicted are driven to make their lives somehow imitate art. Building an inner world is exhausting: we look to film and television to show us versions of ourselves, to allow us to process our lives, to excuse them, and maybe to ennoble them. And yet, at this task, Hollywood is notoriously deficient. Some stories do not get told. Some identities are never offered up for examination.
For children of Hollywood, to whom the industry’s failures are especially vivid and proximate, an excellent option is to a make a film of one’s own. (In a press interview, Sofia Coppola mentioned that she’d liked the Bourne series, but wanted to make something “closer to what life is”; hence, Somewhere.)
I’m not a child of Hollywood. In the years since I began pondering the drama of River Phoenix and following the careers of his brother, Joaquin, his brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, and his teacher, Gus Van Sant, I have often recoiled at the drippiness of my psychic involvement with personages whose lives, like those of the characters they depict, don’t figure in my lived experience. But although the industry’s foot soldiers are paid to get our lives wrong on screen, their off-screen lives fascinate by dint of their recognizability. The traumas endured by the children that Hollywood has let down — the sons and daughters of the Phoenixes, the Coppolas, the Afflecks, and many others — provide the narrative templates for anyone who has lived a commonplace American nightmare but lacks the resources to act it out onscreen.
When art fails to provide catharsis — when the movies won’t resemble reality, or admit their own unreality — the tabloids take over. Here, at least, the world is half-acknowledged, if not transcended. Recognition, of course, is not the same as resolution: the only thing like life is life, which is so much longer than a movie. The story seems never to end; the suffering does not stop.
I will never exact revenge on Hollywood for determining the architecture of my brother’s madness. My family will never see its story held up to the mirror of cinematic production. It takes a work of art that wrecks the mirror for us to see what we are missing. For that sight, too, I am grateful to Joaquin.