Who's more easily conned by reality TV and fake movies like 'I'm Still Here': The media or the public?
Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix's much-debated mock documentary, "I'm Still Here," now revealed to be an utter fake, is just the latest example of a tsunami of entertainment that it is not at all what it seems. In fact, when you watch movies or TV today, it's hard to decide whether what you're seeing is real, fake or somewhere in the dramatic netherworld in between.
TV is overrun with reality TV shows, which might be the least accurate genre moniker of all time, since virtually all reality TV shows are shaped, scripted and full of storylines that are just as complex and convoluted (and often just as preposterous) as any soap opera or telenovela series. At the multiplexes this weekend, "I'm Still Here" was joined by "Catfish," a fascinatingly ambiguous documentary by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman about a wide-eyed young New York photographer--actually one of the director's brothers--who engages in an online romance with a mysterious young woman who turns out to be entirely different from whom she appears to be.
If you spend time on YouTube, you can dip into a nonstop debate over the veracity of found objects there. Remember lonelygirl15, who was supposedly a real video blogger whose family had been involved with secret occult practices, prompting a storm of fan obsession and media fascination--until it was revealed that she was an actress, backed by CAA, performing scripted material for an online dramatic series?
There have been so many put-ons and so much fakery that no one believes anything anymore. After the 12-year-old prodigy Greyson Chance landed a huge record deal after millions of fans watched a homemade YouTube clip of him performing Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi" at a sixth-grade musical, I was stunned to learn that a host of my friends thought it was all a manufactured stunt designed to grab attention for Chance's debut album. The media was equally skeptical, with even the august Christian Science Monitor running a piece interviewing experts who cast doubt on the veracity of the homemade video.
We've been Punk'd so many times that nothing is taken at face value anymore. Last Thursday night "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart announced that he would lead a "Rally to Restore Reason" in Washington on Oct. 30. I assumed it was a real event -- and apparently it is -- but at a gathering last night, there was a lively debate between believers, who thought tens of thousands of people would show up in Washington next month, and doubters, who were convinced the whole thing was a gag or a put-on.
Our level of disbelief has so thoroughly colored our interaction with art that when "Catfish" was first shown at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, it immediately inspired a wave of skeptical catcalls. In the lead was Movieline's Kyle Buchanan, who put up a post debunking the film, saying "I think the filmmakers knew from the start what they had on their hands, and they baited a mentally unwell woman for almost a year until their film needed a climax.... You're telling me that a pair of young filmmakers documenting said story would never think to Google their mysterious subjects over a span of several months?"
Even before Casey Affleck admitted to the New York Times that "I'm Still Here" was a hoax, a number of critics were noisily distancing themselves from the film, which purported to show Phoenix, having given up acting for a career as a rapper, doing drugs, hiring hookers, berating his assistants and generally acting like a zonked-out loon. It turned out that critics, having studied actors for a living, were quick to question Phoenix's dramatic motivation. (Roger Ebert has even put up a scorecard, detailing which major film critics believed the film was real -- Ebert being at the head of the list -- thought it was open to question or were convinced it was a sham.)
As the New York Post's Kyle Smith witheringly put it, describing how Phoenix is seen in the film going into a manic-depressive tailspin after his disastrous appearance on David Letterman's show: "We are meant to believe the actor was anguished enough to stop his limo in a Central Park transverse and climb up a wall to scourge himself in the bushes. But if he was too cool to make an effort with Letterman, why would he be so uncool about having failed?"
"Catfish" producer Andrew Jarecki, whose 2003 documentary "Capturing the Friedmans" was nominated for an Oscar, insists that none of the events in "Catfish" were manufactured in any way. But he isn't surprised by the level of skepticism inspired by much of our new media, especially media involving online experiences.
"We're falling into a sketchier, more limited kind of communication than we've ever had before," he told me. "When a 25-year-old friends someone on Facebook, the word 'friend' means something very different, since you may well have friended someone that you've never even met."
He suspects that we've all become so adept at curating our own reality--putting forward the most positive versions of ourselves--that we are instantly skeptical of everyone else's purported reality. "People are quick to jump to conclusions about what is real and what isn't real because they're a little guilty, since they know that in their own lives, what they're putting up online isn't exactly true."
The key to our reactions seems to have a lot to do with whether we feel we're in on the joke or not. It was easy to laugh along with "Borat" because those of us in the audience weren't the rubes who were being scammed and made fun of by Sacha Baron Cohen, who repeatedly passed himself off, not as an outrageous comic, but as someone who was making a documentary. At first we were fascinated by the saga of the Balloon Boy, when a Colorado couple claimed their son was aboard a helium balloon that was in the air for hours before landing near the Denver International Airport. But fascination quickly turned to disgust when it was revealed that the boy had been hiding at home the entire time and, when questioned by Wolf Blitzer on "Larry King Live," the boy blurted out that the whole thing had been a stunt to spark interest in a reality TV show.
The parents actually served jail time for their role in the fraud. Filmmakers don't have to pay a debt to society for similar transgressions, though I suspect that Phoenix and Affleck will serve some limited sentences in movie jail for their inept attempt to delude moviegoers into believing that "I'm Still Here" was a genuine article. The film has been a spectacular dud at the box office, attracting so few moviegoers this past weekend that it only made $115,000 in 120 theaters, a per-screen average of $953 per theater.
I don't mean to put all the blame on filmmakers and publicity seeking scam artists. If you pay any attention to world affairs, you could easily argue that all too many people are no longer swayed by fact-based authority of any kind. They believe what they want to believe, facts be damned, which is why zealots can go around thinking that Barack Obama is a Muslim while untold numbers of people across the Middle East are somehow convinced that no Jews were killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks because they were evacuated before the planes hit the Twin Towers.
When it comes to entertainment, we in the media are sticklers for attributable facts. When a Hollywood biopic stretches the truth, we are the first to raise a ruckus. But in Hollywood, the truth is seen as being much more elastic, in part because film and TV writers create drama for a living, in part because people in showbiz tell so many white lies every day that the notion of a bigger truth often eludes them.
For now, entertainment consumers have sided with the mythmakers. In today's media-saturated age it is simply too bewildering to try to make sense of what is real anymore. If a reality TV show is totally manufactured--so be it. It doesn't interfere with our enjoyment of the storyline or the characters. The lines between artifice and reality have become so hopelessly blurred that very few of us take offense at being manipulated anywhere. When it comes to entertainment, we've gotten into the habit of lying back and enjoying it.
Photo: Joaquin Phoenix arriving at the taping of "The Late Show With David Letterman" in 2009. Credit: Charles Sykes / Associated Press