2.13.2009

Joaquin Phoenix, a genius, jams the circuit



His posture, his play, is brilliant. The Letterman machine with its ready quips and its obedient audience that laughs and claps on command wants Phoenix to play his part. At first, Letterman tries to cajole him into advocating the actor's film—that is, to advertise the film, for that is what the Letterman show is at its most basic: an ad for Hollywood dreck.

Phoenix, however, does not play along. But what's so great, what's so brilliant, is his tactic. Once Letterman can't get him to play the ad man for the film, what options are left? Phoenix must be crazy—loaded or crazy, like Farah Fawcett. These are the options this idiotic machine offers: sell the goods or you're a lunatic.

But Phoenix plays neither. He sits sternly, quietly, and lets the madness around him unfurl. Suddenly, it's not him who looks crazy—it's Letterman! It's the inane audience who laughs at nothing, who laughs on command. Listen to what Phoenix says about the audience, "What do you gas them up with?"

Joaquin Phoenix jams the well worn circuits of celebrity. On the one hand, this is easy to do—the circuits are so well known, so well trodden, that to deviate is easy. On the other hand what makes this performance so great is that he never gets folded back into their discourse, back into the rules of their game. He never turns pugilistic, never antagonizes, never plays against what's happening. And nor does he ever allow for a knowing wink within the game, as if to reassure everyone that the money machine is still rolling along, that the life draining rules of propriety are still in play.

Neither fists nor wink, Phoenix chooses the ancient path of the warrior who sits silent and lets his enemies destroy themselves. It was painful for me to watch Letterman squirm and hawk—Letterman, who had once been the one to jam those idiotic circuits of celebrity, Letterman who never had patience for all the bullshit, now Letterman who is at once puppet and puppet master for the same old crap.

Joaquin Phoenix, stoic genius, sits quietly, insistent in his silence, graceful in his posture, refusing all attempts to co-opt him, all efforts to claim him. What a refreshing sight.

20 comments:

V said...

I hear you, but...

He was certainly there because of a contractual obligation to promote his movie: if he doesn't do these shows, he's in breach.

So to me, he's really giving the finger to the film's producers, with Letterman caught in the middle: Letterman is tossing him softballs to make Phoenix's job as easy as possible, and Phoenix is making Letterman look like a desperate fool. I'm not endorsing in the Big Hollywood Circle Jerk, but he signed on for the game and off on his paychecks. If Phoenix finds 12 minutes of bullshit simply too taxing a demand, let him forfeit the accompanying privileges of wealth and fame -- let him get sued for breach of contract and forfeit some of his lucre and his Q rating -- and then I'll really respect his cooler-than-thou act.

Also: it's called a "talk show" for a reason: it doesn't work if people don't talk and it doesn't work if they don't put on a show. Even when Letterman was the one "jamming the circuit," both talk and show were the sine qua non of his gig, and if you didn't provide the former then you were turned into the latter. Again, no one forces you to play the game or even watch it being played.

It reminds me of Albert Brooks in "Lost in America" explaining why he should get his casino losings back, because he's not one of those schmucks who like Wayne Newton.

Daniel Coffeen said...

I see your point — Phoenix could just walk away. But how often are we afforded the opportunity to take the stage and, well, fuck some shit up, even if quietly. I think by performing as he does rather than just not showing up, JP is admirable, generous, even.

V said...

Don't get me wrong, I see why you dig the performance: it's a rare instance of seeing irresistible force actually meet immovable object, and then watching as the force goes haywire. And, whatever the web of circumstances that brought it about, Phoenix's performance is, yes, masterful.

I think we are attuned to differing wave lengths of hypocrisy here. For you, it's Letterman, the former enfante terrible now panicky when faced with one himself. For me, it's those who reap the astonishingly outsized rewards of a system that they profess to despise. This may be because (albeit on a far smaller scale) I did precisely that until I finally said "fuck this" and left the game entirely.

Finally...I am a little surprised at your privileging of the literal stage: don't we all take the stage every moment of our lives? Aren't we presented with an infinite number of opportunities at any given moment to jam the circuits? If we recognized those infinite micro-stages -- workplace meetings, blind dates, bar mitzvah receptions, etc. -- and exploited the opportunity to "jam the circuits," the revolution in sensibilities that you sensibly advocate would be 1/2 way or more accomplished. Witness the Pranksters, rewriting the script at every turn, from stops by traffic cops to dropping acid with Timothy Leary.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Yes yes yes: I love it. The proliferation of stages, every moment an opportunity. Yes yes yes.

But surely there is a difference between a man alone with his spouse, jamming his circuit (ahem), and a celebrity doing it in front of millions. I don't want to privilege one over the other but they are different. On the literal stage, there is an opportunity to wake up thousands of people. This is not to say that it is a more important opportunity. I agree with you: if we all took the opportunities that are there for us every day and jammed them, twisted them, played with them the world would be a much more hospitable place.

V said...

For sure. As my friend Harry enjoyed pointing out all those years ago, a difference in degree eventually becomes a difference in kind. Standing in front of a tank is always inspiring, but doing it in Tiannemen Square with the world watching is globally galvanizing.

The truth of course is that Phoenix's performance is a hiccup at best: the ocean of celebrity culture rolls on, perhaps a bit ruffled by this unusual eddy but ultimately unchanged. Perhaps your knowledge of this is what is what makes your delight so intense: for that brief and unlikely moment, you got to see your sensibilities, your virtues, enacted publicly. So precisely because you know that nothing will change, the sense of possibility is all the more electrifying.

To come full circle, I submit that, at least in part, it's precisely these feelings that animated the inauguration frenzy that left you stymied. You are a congenital non-joiner as well as indifferent to the political as she is writ today, so the role of lone apostate championing an unlikely prophet is a far better fit for you than throwing on a "Yes We Can" baseball cap and driving old ladies to the polls. But the human instinct to see yourself in the world and the world in you is the same.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Absolutely. I LONG to see my world accepted, celebrated, or at least expressed. I had such nervous joy when "There Will Be Blood" was up for an Oscar; the same with "Pulp Fiction': I felt like my world had caught the attention and love of the world and, for a moment, I felt like perhaps all was not lost, that I was not so alone. I realize people felt this way about Obama; I just wished they felt this way about Harmony Korine, WS Burroughs, or, well, me.

So, yes, for one moment—a moment not so interesting except for its rarity—I saw my world in Joaquin Phoenix and I felt just slightly less alienated from this world.

Now I'm off to the shrink.....

V said...

No other comments.

Have we spooked the others?

fernando said...

Well, Phoenix' performance, in analysis, might seem to 'show' a certain way out from the bright lights and big city that Letterman and his ilk represent but then again it is all 'performance' anyway. I mean, Crispin Glover of Bartleby fame did it to Letterman (check your youtube) and Gary Busey did it brilliantly to Letterman but in a more 'crazy' way than 'stoic' way that Phoenix seems to show here.

What I'm saying is that Phoenix is simply a recent incarnation of this kind of short circuit that manages to float to the surface ever occasionally in talk shows. I mean, if you really want to make it stoic, you have to go. all. the. way. and say that there was no other way Phoenix could go while interviewed by Letterman. That, Phoenix in a sense, was fated, like all the others in his canon, to end up doing this kind of stoic performance.

I think that an awesome performance that would really short circuit the talk show circuit would go conceptually along the same lines as the old Etruscan pirate torture of tying a rotting corpse to a living man and allowing the corpse to rot thus rotting the man as well. Some guest needs to effectively 'rot' so to also rot the talk show host at the same time. That, gentlemen, would be a performance to watch.

V said...

One last quick thing to shit on your parade:

When the Academyloved Pulp Fiction, they loved a different Pulp Fiction than you did. They loved "Royale with cheese" and "Check out the big brain on Brad." It's like the Grateful Dead breaking into the Top 20 with "Touch of Grey" and the next you thing you know every frat house date rapist is doing his date raping in $30, store-bought tie-dyes. Right object of veneration, wrong mode of worship.

BWR said...

honestly, it drives me crazy that no one has pointed out how racist his schtick is.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Hey BR: Say more.

BWR said...

i don't want to steal your thunder re: your original point on his letterman performance. in fact, i absolutely agree with you, it's refreshing to watch someone jam a mass media circuit in such a hilarious way.

but. the hip-hop slant of his act is problematic, because he's co-opting a major source of black affect and making a joke out of it. and i understand the argument that hip-hop is universal now, that it's a virus that has inextricably made its way into pretty much every current of contemporary music... but, there is, to me, a precarious moment in this quasi-utopian, postmodern, everything is up for appropriation or use clusterfuck that implicitly allows a sort of crypto-blackface, racism 2.0, and it's ok now because it's ironic, and it's coming from good liberal white kids (see also: vampire weekend, et all.)

anyways, sorry, i don't want to derail your otherwise on-point reading!

Cody said...

What makes you think he's joking about hip-hop?

V said...

So by your account we should be appalled by the racism of, say, the Beastie Boys?

BWR said...

cody: i think that he's joking because he's dropping half-ass rhymes about throwing your hands in the air over casio presets while casey affleck films it all.

v: no, just for spawning 'rap-rock' and generally being an inconsequential joke band.

Cody said...

Where is he doing this? Though, I'm not sure it's relevant to Daniel's reading of this clip. What defines his 'act' -- Is it this clip? A collection of clips? Even if you are reading a collection of his clips, I think a better reading exists than trying to find a 'racist' moment within the 'postmodern.'

That said, I call bull on your answer to v. If the Beastie Boys are a joke band and 'co-opting' black music (what does this even mean?), isn't Phoenix doing the same thing?

Daniel Coffeen said...

Gentlemen, methinks my blog, of all places, is an ill suited environment for such complex discussions of inter-racial cultural appropriation. I do think it's interesting but it's so far beyond me.

cb474 said...

I feel similarly about Steven Colbert's brilliant roast of Bush and the media a the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner. I happened to rewatch this last night and it's still amazing.

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-869183917758574879

Colbert doesn't let up, even when people realize that this isn't a chummy buddy buddy roast of the president and the media, but biting satire. He keeps going (and is still both brilliant and funny) even when the room falls silent. Nothing fazes him. The silence a confirmation of how truly Colbert hits his target. It confirms how there is nothing to say in the face of someone who has finally spoken what others dared not speak so directly to the president and the media. Colbert turns the situation into what it ought to be, which is not entertainment, but actual politics. Ironically, to me it's this "roast" that was the most serious moment of the Bush presidency, when someone who actually had the public's ear stood up and said, people, this isn't funny, this is serious. Of course, it's Colbert's brilliance to accomplish this by hijacking a moment of traditionally chummy false satire and turning it into the kind of real satire we almost never see in the mainstream media.

It's telling of course that the audience of journalists is amazed by how far Colbert goes, but only falls silent once Colbert goes after the media itself. And then after the fact there's the whole disingenuous "debate" in the media about whether Colbert went to far and violated the bounds of politeness (as if politeness in politics isn't about affirming the power of the status quo).

I've gotten a bit tired of Colbert's schtick in the meantime. But the roast in 2006 is still his finest hour. He had a rare opportunity to address the president directly and didn't waste it trying to curry favor.

M. said...

Now that the original video has been removed from YouTube, folks who want to see it may want to follow this link to David Letterman's interview with Joaquin Phoenix instead. (And no, I am not RickRolling here.)

pierre daud said...

TV has become something incredible. At the digital times where people ar disconnected from each other, because there is not the big common event, TV remains a possibility of community.

I remember when I was a child, the monday morning at school everybidy was speaking of the movie late evening. At this time there was 3 or 4 channels on TV in France.