Director: Frank Capra/Casey Affleck
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In perhaps the strangest double bill I have ever conceived, I watched a very old favorite, Frank Capra’s lyrical, idealistic Lost Horizon, and I’m Still Here, a brand-new mockumentary featuring Joaquin Phoenix as a repulsive, lunatic version of himself. The two movies, made more than 70 years apart, could not be more different in construction, style, look, tone, and especially cast. Ronald Colman, playing war hero and internationally renowned diplomat Robert Conway, is debonair, brave, and soulful. Joaquin Phoenix, who cowrote the film, does his best to come off as repellent as possible, and would have had almost no dialogue at all if the word “fuck” had been stricken from the English language. Yet, there is something connecting these two films—the human desire to live an authentic life.
Capra, born in Sicily, and Phoenix, born in Puerto Rico, both ended up in Southern California and rose from their humble beginnings to make the American Dream their reality. However, the great gap not only in time, but also in attitude between these two films informs the varying outcomes of Conway’s and Phoenix’s individual quests for fulfillment. Whereas Capra believed in dreamers and their dreams, Affleck and Phoenix’s film makes it clear that change is for chumps and madmen who are doomed to failure.
Lost Horizon, a lavish production that inspired Capra to new heights of ingenuity, tells how Conway, whose philosophical writings reveal his hope for a world free of war and cruelty, his brother George (John Howard), and three others escaping by plane from a violent rebellion in the Chinese city of Baskul are hijacked and taken to Shangri-La, a lamasery that sits above the Valley of the Blue Moon. This temperate paradise hidden among the snow-swept mountains in an uncharted region of Tibet is watched over by Father Perrault (Sam Jaffe), a Belgian Catholic priest who was rescued from certain death and brought to the valley, where he eventually became the High Lama of the community. After meeting Conway and seeing into his heart, Father Perrault explains that the mission of Shangri-La is to preserve the world’s great wisdom and treasures from a coming worldwide conflagration to help humanity renew itself. He wants Conway to be his successor.
Conway feels as if he has arrived home and his previously prickly companions all fall for the harmony and enchantment of the place—all, that is, except George, who is filled with anger at his perceived captivity and demands that the porters who periodically bring Shangri-La’s treasures from outside in exchange for gold mined from a rich vein in the valley be summoned to take him back to civilization. “Are you so certain you are away from it?” Chang (H. B. Warner), the High Lama’s righthand man, muses. George manages to shake his brother’s belief in the High Lama’s tale of living at Shangri-La for more than 200 years and the perfection of their utopian existence, and prevails upon him to leave. Only Conway survives the journey, but spends the rest of the film relentlessly trying to make his way back to Shangri-La, where his happiness and destiny lie.
I’m Still Here begins by detailing Joaquin Phoenix’s similarly honored place in his society as a respected actor and Academy Award nominee for the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line (2005). Following a montage of TV appearances Phoenix has made, the scene shifts to nighttime in a backyard, presumably at Phoenix’s home, overlooking Los Angeles. Phoenix is ranting with his back to the handheld camera that his life up to that point has been fraudulent. He says he is making the documentary to chart his growth toward authenticity as he pursues a career as a hip-hop singer. Then we watch him trying to capture a bird trapped in his makeshift music studio and hear him say that only sometimes between “action” and “cut” does he feel alive; he catches the bird in a cloth and then lets it out, a convenient metaphor for freeing himself from the confines of his unfulfilling life. The rest of the film shows him announcing his retirement after his appearance in a play, trying to book singing gigs, writing rap lyrics, attempting to get Sean “P. Diddy” Combs to produce his album, and behaving badly with hookers, David Letterman, and hecklers at a Las Vegas gig.
What struck me after watching these two films, one after the other, was how staring into the blinding light of reality for too long has produced successively more disillusioned, impotent, and self-destructive generations, until we are left with a successful man who decries his own achievements and the world that made them possible, who mocks aspiration and the ascendancy of the dilettante to the very top of many fields. In a priceless scene, Combs listens to some tracks Phoenix has recorded, tells him he liked the first two, and then says, “You’re not ready to record with me,” to Phoenix’s incredulous shock. By contrast, Robert Conway is brought to Shangri-La after years of education and service that have helped him develop a coherent philosophy and strategy for world order and a belief that a better world for all, not just him, can be achieved.
In Lost Horizon, a young man, George, is the voice of the ambitious, self-interested, violent countries of the world getting ready in 1937 to blow each other’s brains out. George uses the testimony of Maria (Margo), a young-looking Russian woman who hates the High Lama and her confinement at Shangri-La and refutes his belief that she is really 70 years old to convince Conway that he’s been told a pack of lies; in fact, it is she who is lying about everything but her own unhappiness, a warning to beware those who would convince you that you don’t know what you know. Similarly, I’m Still Here is a pack of lies masquerading as a truthful documentary, but what are Affleck and Phoenix trying to tell us? Is it that the life of a movie star is better than either of them wants to let on, thus exploding the “myth” of the unhappy celebrity by mocking the stereotype, or perhaps, like Maria, that Phoenix’s unhappiness is real but that the world will ridicule his desire to make a change? Phoenix stacks the deck to elicit such ridicule, letting his hair mat like a balled-up rag, wearing ill-fitting clothes he might have salvaged from a dumpster, purposely sticking his fat, naked belly into Affleck’s camera lens while he lets loose a string of obscenities, and behaving like a schizophrenic on thorazine on The David Letterman Show.
Novelist James Hilton, who authored the 1933 book on which the film version of Lost Horizon is based, wrote a fairytale in an age of madness, predicting that the world would blow itself up and offering a real and metaphorical appreciation for the beautiful things in life that can make a paradise in a region sheltered from the cold winds without—the region of the spirit where the true Self rests. Capra, who found happiness without and within, brought this world to the screen with all the magic at his disposal. For his part, Colman is quite convincing as a heartsick man who is healed by seeing that the world he dreams of can come true and whose separation from that world is heartbreakingly communicated on a face full of longing, tears, and regret. Like pacifists of every age, Lost Horizon did little but offer a balm of gilead, and when the war actually came, title cards explaining the revolution in Baskul were rewritten to offer jingoistic propaganda against the Japanese. The outside world couldn’t even leave this small fantasy of hope alone.
I’m Still Here wallows in its abject degradation, enticing the starhounds who are curious about Phoenix’s abrupt and bizarre shift in direction and encouraging their sardonic laughter at the spectacle of his collapse. Made at the start of the Great Depression II, the film certainly captures the zeitgeist of the time; Phoenix is a symbol of the fall of the American empire, and specifically of a section of it that was used to distract the populace while the country was undone. Phoenix may be trying to get real by embracing the underground world of rap and hip hop—tellingly, about 20 years too late—and his failure is not only inevitable, but also a bit of poetic justice. His poetry isn’t bad and accurately tells his story, but a planted heckler Phoenix comes to blows with near the end of the film ensures that it will not be heard or taken seriously. In the end, Phoenix’s retreat to the jungle of Panama to see his dad is hardly the Eden Capra provides, nor a retreat with a purpose—it’s just a haven for burnouts.
I highly recommend getting the Columbia Classics DVD of Lost Horizon, which is as complete a restored and digitally remastered version of the film as is ever likely to be made. It contains superb extras, including the only remaining footage from the original nitrate negative—a mere minute or two of outtakes of the High Lama’s funeral procession—and a wonderful documentary on the making of the film.