You Say Fact, I Say Fiction: I’m Still Here and Catfish Call the Whole Debate Off

We’re all back to school in one way or another—including the film world, who is rolling out all the top guns for Oscar consideration right around now.  To that end, I’ve seen a bevy of fascinating, and fascinatingly flawed, films in the last few weeks. The two haunting me most are the docs I’m Still Here, Casey Affleck’s exploration into brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix’s ostensible nervous breakdown, and Catfish, about 24-year-old NYC photographer Nev’s curious relationship with an 8-year-old painter and her talented Michigan family. The old news, and even older hat: controversy swirls around both docs, whose authenticity has been called into question ever since their initial screenings. In the case of I’m Still Here, of course, Affleck invited that controversy, especially since he declared this week that he and Phoenix staged the breakdown, including the actor’s legendarily dissociative Letterman performance. Many critics and (fewer) members of the general public are now up in arms.  How dare he prank us? Who does he think he is? Who does he think we are?

L’Shana Tova, indeed.

The concept of a mockumentary has been around for a while. In 1984 Rob Reiner launched it on a big-daddy scale with This Is Spinal Tap. One of its costars, Sir Christopher Guest (Nigel “Take It to 11” Tufnel), went on to legitimize it as a venerable genre with his steady stream of clever, sometimes mean-spirited sendups, including Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show. Over the last decade,  the mockumentary has ripened into the ideal form of satire for a culture so steeped in irony that the denotation of sincerity (and irony, actually) has largely gone missing. Some of our most clever TV shows follow the format, including the too-overlooked HBO Lisa Kudrow vehicle The Comeback as well as The Office (American and English) and my current favorite network TV show, Parks and Recreation.

Then there’s the fact that reality TV is hugely scripted. I would have assumed that the revelation of this ruse would have generated a large public outcry since the one saving grace of these shows is that these events really take place. After all, who would elect to watch untrained actors improvise badly around a contrived premise? But people continue to water-cool this garbage with an alarming dedication. As in: it’s entertaining, and we feel superior to these folks, so who gives a fig?

So why the kerfuffle about whether documentaries or, for that matter, memoirs are “fake?” Is it just that audiences prefer to be in on the joke?

Years ago, James Frey got hung out to dry for fabricating sections of his recovery tell-all A Million Little Pieces.  The public outcry was understandable;  people felt duped by his claims. The real problem was that memoir was so badly written, so artless, that only the veracity of its seemingly implausible facts could make it worthwhile. When it turned out that he had not, in fact, been jailed many times; had not hit a police officer while high on crack, Oprah (who had touted the book) went to town on him, while the rest of the media sniggered from the safety of her skirts. “It was a huge relief, after our long national slide into untruth and no consequence,” wrote Maureen Dowd,  conflating the concept of “factual inaccuracy” and “untruth” once again.

Have we forgotten that memoir, and most documentary, is inherently subjective? Someone has chosen to tell a story and thus, by the act of that choice, it becomes his story in that certain details have been subjugated to ones that matter more to him, regardless of whether they actually took place. Years ago, when documentaries mostly aired on television, they could have been expected to conform to journalism standards, which uphold facts and objectivity so that we can form our own truths. But as docs have migrated onto big screens (a transition I find largely questionable), they have increasingly, and rightfully, been held to cinematic standards, which means that they have grown more deliberate, more constructed, more artful. Michael Moore may use New Yorker fact-checkers to verify the accuracy of his material, but even he might acknowledge he is deliberately selecting material that erects the three-ring circus over which he presides like a pundit lion. (Hear him roar).

When asked how she remembered all the facts in her memoir Autobiography of a Face, the late Lucy Grealy is said to have responded, “I didn’t remember them; I wrote them.” The distinction is an important one. Whether something actually happened matters less than whether it tells the truth at hand. In art, even nonfiction must be rendered creatively, which means that it must capture some aspect of the human condition in a way that enables others to capture it as well. Details are changed or even constructed all the time, even in stories recreating actual events. When it comes to art, what matters is not whether material is accurate but whether it resonates. Certainly a world of difference exists between the two concepts.  Art carves into the loneliness we all carry by pulling back curtains and revealing the truth of who we are and what we experience.  It is communion, the application of our creativity in a way that reaches others as well as our own real selves. To do so requires careful selection and organization and intuition. Reckoning, in other words, rather than fact-checking.

Some shrinks contend that the dreams a client makes up are even more useful than the ones he really experiences. Either way, it all comes from the same morass. Creativity is a constructive solution to that morass. It emerges from a collective unconscious, the same place where you might argue spirit dwells if you believe in such concepts. The truth—the core self—is communicated regardless of whether it is springing from the subconscious or unconscious. Our job, whether as parents or writers or filmmakers or engineers or waitresses, is to serve as vessels with enough integrity and courage and patience to express whatever it is that’s struggling to come through us. To me that is truth—achieved with the grace of creativity, obscured when we lack faith in ourselves and the world we inhabit.

Which brings me to Catfish and I’m Still Here. It’s more difficult to discuss Catfish, since so much of its impact lies in the careful unraveling that each viewer should be allowed to experience on her own. (A.O. Scott may be OK about revealing its spoilers, however elegantly, but I’m not.) Suffice it to say that film reminds us how we disfigure our true desires and identities when we sublimate and ignore them, and how much more possible this has become in the Age of Online Everything. The doc conveys this lightly and then less lightly, but nearly always with a compassion that seems more old-soul than the twentysomething filmmakers’ chronological age. When I saw it, I was unaware of the “hoax” claims that had been following it. After hearing about them, I was struck most by their irrelevance. If some of Catfish has been staged, this only have enhances the veracity of its message: that few of us are who we’d like to be most of the time. The story remains effective regardless of whether it occurred first in someone’s head or in the reality we obstensibly share.

In both films, we are being asked to look at the pain invoked when a person’s only sense of worth is channeled from others, who are then not real to her outside of her own needs.  Surely, I’m Still Hereinvites a more complicated discussion if only because the viewing of it is such a harrowing experience. You flinch the way you do when some one else get punched, so it’s natural to want to know whether that punch really happened, and if it was worth it. After 108 minutes of watching Joaquin slide into the squalor of his own navel—incoherently mumbling (I’ve never seen an American movie use so many subtitles for native English speakers before), getting shat on figuratively and literally, sniffing coke off hooker’s titties, extolling the virtues of lady buttholes, obsessively surfing his own online press, vomiting convulsively, vibrating with panic, growing a big dreadlock and even bigger gut, and generally humiliating himself and others with a wretched abandon—you get what’s really going on, whether you like it or not, whether it really happened or not. Narcissism is brutal, and the celebrity culture that supports its eternal, sickening spin is even more so. Joaquin, who’s been in the public eye since his childhood (and who lost his brother in and to it), is both its perpetrator and victim—as is his “new brother,” Casey, who plays much the same subversive sidekick role here that he seems to play with his real-life bro, Big Ben. (Along those lines, I‘m Still Here is a much bigger film, and even bigger mess, than Ben’s autovalentine The Town.)

The estimable New York critic David Edelstein wrote recently: “As a critic, I have always had a responsibility to watch documentaries with a skeptical eye, aware that reality—even in supposedly fly-on-wall depictions—can be so easily manipulated. But do I now have to view every documentary filmmaker as a potential scam artist?”  To that I reply (and in the interest of my own transparency I acknowledge this continues a conversation I began with Edelstein in person): “This depends on your definition of scam artists.” Since the fundamental message of the film seem so painfully truthful, I would hardly place any of these boys in that category. These young(ish) men aren’t hustlers so much as anxious. Anxious to please, anxious to educate, anxious to open our eyes. I believe they were looking to convey exactly how much our needs can lead us to fool, and be fooled. God forbid we’re not in on that joke.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy