I'm Still Here and five other elaborate media fake-outs

Last year, Joaquin Phoenix was leaving acting. After the release of Two Lovers, Phoenix grew a large beard, announced he would be pursuing a career in rapping and seemed utterly to implode, beginning with a bizarre, apparently drug-addled appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. During that interview, Letterman attempted to discuss Phoenix's announcement (Phoenix was largely incoherent), and told him in the course of that discussion that he hoped Phoenix would return to acting some day. Turns out, he was acting then. In fact, he's been acting this whole time. Yesterday, Casey Affleck admitted to the New York Times that his I'm Still Here was one massive fake-out, calling Phoenix's role in it "the performance of his career." In that spirit, we present five classic cinematic examples of the old bait-and-switch.

5. The Strangers Here's the tagline: "The horrifying events that took place in the Hoyt family's vacation home at 1801 Clark Road on Februay 11, 2005, are still not entirely known." That's because they never took place. Initially billed as "based on a true story," The Strangers was not in any appreciable way based on a true story -- that was just to sell tickets. Writer and director Bryan Bertino said it was "inspired" by the Manson murders to justify the "true story" claim, but even that doesn't hold up: In the movie, a couple is attacked by three strangers who creepily stalk them; in the case of the Sharon Tate murder, Manson did indeed make a creepy appearance at the Polanski house the night before the murder took place -- but that whole scene with the cell phone in the fire? Didn't even come close to happening. Nice try, Bertino.
4. Machete When Robert Rodriguez made the fake trailer for Machete to run before Grindhouse, his double feature with Quentin Tarantino, it seemed to good not to be true: A gloriously, proudly "B" movie chocked full of an A-list cast that included Jessica Alba and Robert DeNiro. Indeed it wasn't... not true... or something. At any rate, nobody knew how to interpret Rodriguez's subsequent hints that he'd actually make the film until a new trailer appeared -- this one less fake-seeming. Even still, there was some speculation right up to the film's release that perhaps it was just more sleight-of-hand in an elaborate trick.
3. The Blair Witch Project The Blair Witch Project was groundbreaking in a number of ways: One was the filming style, really the first example of the fake documentary conceit that's become common today even in sitcoms (Arrested Development, anyone?). But the real genius was how Haxan Films used the Internet -- in 1999 still something of a novelty -- to promote the film and suggest it was real, in one of the earlies instances of true viral marketing.
2. Exit through the Gift Shop When the obscure French street artist Thierry Guetta set out to make a movie, he thought it was going to be about fellow and internationally acclaimed street artist Banksy, whose enigmatic persona had never before revealed his true identity. But in an interesting twist, Banksy commandeered the project and turned the cameras back on Guetta, in the process launching Guetta's rise to the international art scene as Mr. Brainwash -- or did he? Speculation rose almost immediately: Was Guetta in cahoots with Banksy? Was the whole thing planned? Was Guetta, in fact, Banksy himself? (Banksy's face is never shown.) The film was released in April, and even still, nobody is sure if it was real or not.
1. War of the Worlds Orson Welles taking on H.G. Wells. Everyone knows this story -- and for good reason: Even unintentionally (it's announced before the broadcast that it's a presentation of the story by H.G. Wells), War of the Worlds was the nuttiest, most stunningly effective media hoax of all time.

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Jef Otte
Contact: Jef Otte