Sunday, September 19, 2010


Remember Andy Kaufman? If you watched TV back in the 1970s and the early '80s, you probably do. He would show up on Saturday Night Live and do bizarre one-man skits, including the hilarious "Mighty Mouse" dub where he put a record on a turntable and stood in anticipation as the Mighty Mouse theme song played, punctuating the heroic lyrics with an extended hand. It was funny as hell. But what was really funny was that you couldn't make any sense out of it. And that was key to Kaufman's foolishness.

Kaufman then developed this "foreign" character named Latka and ended up on the sitcom "Taxi," as a lovable naif. At around the same time, Kaufman also developed this other character named Tony Clifton, who was an audience-abusing lounge singer. He was combative and cruel. Clifton even went after Kaufman, claiming that Kaufman was trying to ruin Clifton's "good name" for money and fame. Amazingly, people bought it and didn't know if Clifton was real or not. Some people didn't even realize Clifton was Kaufman.

Kaufman then insinuated himself into the wrestling circuit blasting the "sport" for its inauthenticity. He mocked professional wrestlers and made claims that anybody could do what they do, including himself. So he forced himself into the ring and eventually challenged women wrestlers in an over-the-top and aggressive manner.

Eventually he stepped into the ring with Jerry Lawler who supposedly "broke" Kaufman's neck using a move called the pile driver. For months after, Kaufman made appearances wearing a neck brace while threatening to take Lawler down while exposing him as a fake. Kaufman appeared on the David Letterman show in 1982 ranting about Lawler. Lawler himself showed up on the set and punched out Kaufman. Again, audiences were stunned into believing what they saw was the truth.

It wasn't true. Not one minute of it. It was brilliant and lengthy performance art.

Which brings us to Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck. In the Affleck-directed documentary, I'M STILL HERE, Phoenix is shown as a drug-abusing, self-possessed, self-destructive, ego-maniac gone insane, turning his back on acting to pursue a career in rap music (seriously?). Phoenix actually told the press he was quitting acting and made an appearance on Letterman in February 2009 that was baffling (but not as incoherent as first reported) at best.

The I'M STILL HERE documentary was released in mid-September and reviewed by critics who weren't sure about its authenticity. Roger Ebert questioned it but also took it seriously as a film, hence the nature of his review. (See Ebert's follow-up here)

At the time of its release, Casey Affleck said I'M STILL HERE was 100% true. Phoenix said very little.

Two weeks later, Affleck revealed the documentary as a fake. Says Affleck in the New York Times, "I never intended to trick anybody. The idea of a quote hoax unquote, never entered my mind." Affleck then praised Phoenix for "the performance of his career."

The film, in very limited release, isn't gathering an audience because, frankly, most people don't care about the antics of two privileged Hollywood brats. The reporters and film reviewers who were duped are, more likely, simply embarrassed that they took the bait. These writers are crying foul and some are calling Affleck and Phoenix "knuckleheads" who have "a lot of explaining to do." (Patrick Goldstein, Los Angeles Times).

But why explain anything at all? And so what if Affleck and Phoenix are "knuckleheads?" They didn't hurt anybody. They made a stupid movie that wasn't really a documentary. They did something that Kaufman did some 30 years ago. (And, yes, Kaufman was a "genius," and Affleck and Phoenix are "knuckleheads" - big difference, blah, blah, blah...)

Goldstein makes the claim that Affleck "won't get to direct another movie any time soon." Really? Affleck's joke was that egregious?

All in all, this little antic was a diversion. A brief moment in time subverting the entertainment world's puffery and self-importance.

Here's to Affleck and Phoenix - a couple of "knuckleheads" exposing how stupidly unreal their own profession really is.

By the way, people are wondering if Letterman knew about the ruse when he had Phoenix on in February 2009. Turns out it was all part of the plan. Yes, Letterman knew.

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