Are We Worth It?

In the film I’m Still Here (see yesterday’s blog), Joaquin Phoenix presents himself as a vile, cruel and vindictive drunk.  It doesn’t come across as a joke, but a dark challenge to humanity, asking the chilling question: How bad can we be?

If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, a recently opened Off-Broadway play by Nick Payne, examines this question as well. The fatherly academic George underlines his dim view of a species that willfully destroys its own world by directly asking, “Are we worth it?” The audience is left empty and doubtful too after witnessing the characters, including Jake Gyllenhaal’s most profane Terry, drift around in their sad isolation, as the stage floods from our suicidal global warming — depressing stuff indeed.

This isn’t anything new. Our storytellers have gone at our damaged and demented psyche from the beginning – including Aeschylus’ The Oresteia and Shakespeare’s  The Merchant of Venice – right through to this not-so-sunny day. The message is always the same: we’re just not that great.A similar malaise permeates my novel, My Bad Side. No matter how much we have – and that’s the goal, isn’t it? – we’re still stuck with the knowledge that we’re just not worth that much. As Crystal states: I drink too much. I have a problem with it. But so fucking what? Everyone’s got something. Everyone’s dragged down by something. There isn’t much of anything in this life but pain and tears. The Greeks said it. Shakespeare said it. Salinger said it. Fucking everyone. That’s just what we have in this life, Anne-Lynn, a few moments of happiness and the rest is suffering and death. That’s life.

Uh…yeah, well, maybe we should just forget all of that for now.  Everything’s cool., right? And it’s Friday! Time to party.

Still Reel: Herzog, Phoenix & Synecdoche

“Filmmakers are liars.”  So said Werner Herzog at the New York premiere of his 3-D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 2011. He explained that  film is a constructed thing, made up in its framing, lighting, editing, acting and the arc of the story. No matter how Cinema Verite any film might claim to be, it will always be what it is: fabricated and artificial.

Joaquin Phoenix’s film, I’m Still Here, attempts to address this issue directly. As he explained on The David Letterman Show, the film looked to “explore the relationship between the media and the consumers and the celebrities themselves. We wanted something that would feel really authentic.” Indeed, the film makes a mockery of the Hollywood machine, the audience, even himself.

The thing is that film – as is writing – is just a synecdoche, a small part of something else. In other words, even though a narrative might strive to be more than it really is, with the characters staring back, time codes in the left hand corner, it remains just a story, a splinter, a rejoinder, a sigh, a whimper.

As Dee says in My Bad Side: “I mean, I know there is only death, just that. I know it is just about waking up and getting out of bed until I don’t. And then it isn’t. I know that dreams are chemical. I know I am stuck in this life. And I know that is it. I hate it or say that I hate it to myself, but it isn’t that bad a thing.