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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'Two Lovers' director on Joaquin Phoenix Web reports: They're gibberish

If you surf the showbiz news on the Internet every day, as I do, you'd by now be convinced that "Two Lovers" director James Gray was furious with Joaquin Phoenix. According to a blizzard of stories on the web, Gray has been railing against the film's oddball star, who managed to bury the well-reviewed movie with his outrageous antics, most notably with an appearance on "Late Show with David Letterman" that was such a circus act that it ended up earning 7.5 million hits on YouTube. According to an interview he gave the Times of London, Gray was "seething" at the circus surrounding Phoenix, adding that none of the star's antics "are helping his movie."

Joaquinphoenix The story chronicling Gray's alleged unhappiness with Phoenix (its headline read: "James Gray's Anger Over Joaquin Phoenix's Rap Career") was picked up everywhere, with the Silicon Valley's Mercury News quoting from the Times, saying "Gray spits at the name, calling him a 'clown.' " The New York Post weighed in today as well, running the headline: "Crazy Phoenix Irks Director." Its Page Six item also quoted Gray as calling Phoenix a "clown," adding that Gray "seethed" to the Times that Phoenix was "a crazy person with a beard making a fool out of himself."

There's only one problem: When I called Gray this afternoon to see if he'd checked into an anger management clinic, the filmmaker sounded as slyly funny as ever, except for his complaint that the Web coverage of his supposed spitting match with Phoenix was largely gibberish. "I don't read stuff that's written about me, but my publicist called to ask why I was so pissed off at Joaquin and I went, 'What are you talking about?' " he explained. "To say that I'm angry at Joaquin is beyond preposterous. I'm not angry with him at all. We've done three movies together. He's like a brother to me."

Gray was appalled by the inaccuracies and half-truths he encountered. "I'd say of the Joaquin-related stories that were sent to me, about 60% were factually correct, but if you were checking them in terms of accuracy and the correct context, then you'd be down to about 30%. You wonder how much of the actual truth the average person gets. I mean, if newspapers continue to go out of business and the Web is going to be our source for news, we're all in really big trouble."

Gray's woes offer an intriguing insight into the way a story is distorted and trivialized by Web bloggers, who either out of sloppiness or a need to attract more Web hits, adorn rewrites of the original piece with inflammatory taglines or more colorful language. The Times piece offers a textbook example of the process. The original story, by Kevin Maher, actually makes it reasonably clear that Gray didn't call Phoenix a clown. He was referring to Casey Affleck, who was following Phoenix around with a documentary film crew when the actor was giving press interviews about "Two Lovers."

When the Times says, "Gray spits at his name, calling him a 'clown,' it is readily apparent that Gray was referring to Affleck. As it turns out, Gray has his issues with that reference, saying, "How does the reporter know I 'spit' at the name? I did the interview on the phone. I haven't been in London in seven years." He argues that the context was wrong too. "Casey was shooting his documentary in the middle of our junket interviews, so I said to him, in my usual sarcastic way, 'Stop being a clown -- let me do my interview.' But that's the exact problem. Everything ends up being a bastardization of what you actually said."

The laziness factor can't be ignored. The Times never tells its readers that the interview was done over the phone, not in person. By the time the Mercury News got a hold of the story, its writer mistakenly placed Gray "in the UK for his 'Two Lovers' press junket," an assumption the writer made apparently because the quotes came from a story with a London byline. As for all the references to his "seething" over Phoenix's behavior, Gray sighs: "It's just made up. I'd only be unhappy if Joaquin hurt the movie, which although the stories say it, it isn't true either. What he did on Letterman got us a lot of attention. With the tiny marketing budget we have for the film, I was happy to see anyone talking about us at all."

So if Gray is seething, it's only at the hapless Web dolts that managed to take nearly everything he said out of context. "It feels crazy to me that you can say 'X' and after the Internet is through with it, it comes out 'Q.' They either only include the first half of your quote or the headline is sensationalized and by the time you read the third story, it ends up having nothing to do with what you actually said."

But that's the Web in all its glory: never letting the truth get in the way of a good sensationalized story.

Photo of Joaquin Phoenix by Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times.

 
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This story was scary to read because it reminded me of how untrustworthy internet sources can be. The portrayal of Gray's alleged comments was like the conclusion of that telephone game where the first person whispers a phrase into the ear of the person next to them and so forth. There's always one kid who thinks it would be really funny to "mishear" the phrase and change it to something absurd but (admittedly) funnier. That's what seems to be going on with stories like Gray's – aside from the laziness you mentioned, there seems to be a component of hype for hype's sake.

What's sad is that the people who published and re-published this story weren't just bloggers, they were newspapers as well. Whether the paper is good or bad, the mere fact that it's a paper adds credence to the story, and it subsequently gets repeated as fact.

Then again, maybe misinformed online stories like this one are a good thing – when uncovered, that is. They remind the audience that they need to be responsible in which stories they choose to read. And they remind everyone of the need for responsible, name brand journalism in a time when anyone can publish their opinion and call it a story.

Kudos to you for going straight to the source and calling Gray up. While I'm excited for the possibilities of citizen journalism, I'm also worried...


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