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March 03, 2009

We Need Joaquin: A Case for Joaquin Phoenix Over David Letterman, and Allowing Space in Our Media for Shit to Go Wrong

Although it’s easy to forget, what with total strangers deciding to have eight children and other important world events, but: remember that Joaquin Phoenix appearance on Letterman?

Much of the conversation about Joaquin’s interview centers around whether it was influenced by drugs, Andy Kaufman, or both. Whatever the cause, people seem to be missing what it really was: A COMPELLING INTERVIEW. Many outlets hyperbole themselves into calling it “an instant classic”.

But why was it all-caps compelling?

We Saw It All Go Down

That night, the TV was tuned high and loud at The Risky Deck. The cleaning crew was beginning to appear, the early late crowd sauntering in, the late early crowd sauntering out.

The set up for this TV moment bears recap: we have Joaquin, thought to have already retired from acting to focus on his rap career. We have the studio, sending Joaquin out to promote a film, even though he is probably not interested in doing so. He may actively hate the idea, but contractually can’t get out of it. Letterman’s people, and therefore Letterman, should/probably know this. Warning #1.

Warning #2 is when Joaquin comes out on stage: the shades. Despite the influence of rocker culture on our society: expensive ripped jeans, beards, the resurgence of medallions, etc—generally when appearing on a talk show, celebrities want to be seen. They take off the shades. The fact that he didn’t should’ve been a red flag to Letterman. Instead, Letterman commits the Initial Mistake by commenting on Joaquin’s appearance.

How to Bait the Hook

Assuming that Letterman wanted the interview to go well and it’s not all a put on, in those circumstances, when the interviewee sends those sorts of signals, the last thing to do is comment on how they look. You’ll get the same reaction by telling a twelve-year-old punk their hair sure looks real crazy, and asking if she still likes collecting stickers when you’re both at a family reunion. The defensive mechanism has been tripped.

The rest: Letterman alternates between engaging Joaquin one moment, mocking him the next. Predictable results. Paul Schafer gets on Joaquin’s nerves, but he gets on everyone’s nerves. Immaterial.

The Uncomfortable Truth

The point is that, at most, the interview is uncomfortable. That’s it. It’s not inflammatory. They don’t nearly come to blows. Joaquin doesn’t set the chair on fire, and Letterman doesn’t almost get kicked in the face again. It’s just uncomfortable.

Talk shows are a contract: interviewee is promoting something, interviewer gets material (and viewers and advertisers’ dollars) for their show. Win-win. We’re sure material was vetted on the shows of the distant past, but in the recent past you see more of “the card” with pre-approved questions and discussion topics. Understandable, to a point, because no-one wants to answer the same questions all the time. Yet talk shows now may often go too far to the other extreme. What you’re really watching is a live action press release.

A tame show has its place, sure, as does a rowdy show. If all the shows are the same, what are you left with? Not a hell of a lot. This where we find ourselves, shocked that a star is either having a bad day or fucking around.

This is What You Want, This Is What You Get

Have we become so dulled, so lulled by an expected format, that a slight deviation from formula generates disproportionate press as a result? One would have to say yes. The proof?

The example that comes to mind is the classic John Lydon & Keith Levine of Public Image Ltd. vs. Tom Snyder interview from 1980 (embedded below). This is a good example of an interview that is actually cantankerous and confrontational, far more than just uncomfortable. All parties get annoyed at one point or another, and all parties are direct with one another.

Set aside your preconceived notions of either Lydon/Levine or Synder for a moment, and what’s really telling is the truth. There is a directness to it that seems almost unfathomable when compared to what is normally seen on television. It’s hard to imagine anything similar being shown on TV today. The sad realization that is that in 20 years we’ve gone backwards, rather than forward.

Professionalism Begets Blandness

Yes, there’s being a professional. Yes, there’s an unwritten agreement that everyone is helping each other out. Our point is not to contest. Our point is reinforce the fact that the media surrounding us are all so subtly bland, so safely sterile, that the smallest blip gets everyone talking.

Businesses, especially the media, wonder why so many of their traditional ventures are failing. It’s because people need more that is actually compelling, and less of what is theoretically compelling based on audience research. Media—otherwise known as the arts—needs to be less controlled. There need to be programs and output with complexity, as well as those that are the equivalent of junk food. One can’t live on bread alone—nor just junk food.

It’s easy to forget this particular artificial construct of our world until things may break down a little, then it’s thrown into sharp relief.

People need more of the unexpected, more of the human.

In short, we need more interviews like Joaquin’s.

Part One:

Part Two:


posted at 01:22 PM | find it forever




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