I’m talking about “Catfish” (“Distance has no way of making love understandable”)

September 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

I think it’s pretty clear from the trailer and the various TV previews that what happens in Catfish is pretty predictable. But the details will shock and anger you and they’ll also be deeply sad and disturbing. While experiencing the movie, you’ll ask yourself if what you’re seeing is “real” and I think that’s exactly what these filmmakers should want you to be asking. It’s a movie about lies, deception and investigation and how technology allows us to do these things effortlessly. It’s about being able to fall in love virtually and have your heart broken in reality.

Aesthetically, the movie is just how I want a movie about the internet to be: grainy video shot alongside crisp HD video, screen captured animation of Google Maps and Google Earth, shots of a GPS mounted on a car’s dashboard, extreme close-ups of computer screens so we can see each electronic pixel that makes up this false world. It really is beautiful. It’s a step in the right direction for this sub-genre of films dealing with virtual reality and the internet. It’s what The Social Network could have and should have been. This too is a movie about Facebook but it goes deeper.

The film centers around New York based photographer, Nev Schulman, after he receives a painting of one of his published photographs in the mail from a young painter named Abby. Through Abby, Nev begins corresponding with her family by email. He “meets” Abby’s mother, Angela, and Abby’s half-sister, 19-year-old Megan. At first, communication begins through email, Facebook and Google Chat. Nev “friends” the family members on Facebook  and he clicks through their profile photos and bio pages. He chats and texts with them and he’ll occasionally call Megan on the phone who Nev begins having a more romantic relationship with. Although they’ve never actually met, Nev and Megan fall in love with the lives they’ve shared to one another on facebook. Megan is a dancer, photographer and singer and she loves animals. Nev is swept off his feet.

(Spoiler Alert)

After eight months of correspondence, Nev begins receiving songs performed and recorded by Megan. Megan even asks for requests from Nev and after a very short turn-around time, a new song is sent to Nev’s inbox. There’s something fishy about these songs. They sound familiar. Nev begins searching for the songs on Youtube and Google. He discovers that the songs that Megan is sending are not her own. It isn’t Megan singing. Megan has been sending audio files ripped from Youtube videos and has taken credit for them as her own material.

(End Spoilers)

From this point on, Nev and the two other filmmakers, Nev’s brother Rel, and Henry Joost, begin an investigation into the lives of this family. The more they scour the web, the less this digital relationship makes sense. Nev soon realizes that Megan has been lying about who she is and what she does. Nev and the film crew fly to Michigan and drive three hundred miles to confront Megan and her family face to face, unannounced.

Bombshells are dropped quite methodically on the filmmakers’ part. It’s all built on excellent suspense, no doubt about that. Whether the chronological order of these events is accurate, I don’t know but it doesn’t make it any less compelling. And as the truth becomes more and more in focus, we gasp and shake our heads at it. We’re not appalled because someone has lied about themselves (this is nothing new), but because the lier has been caught. There’s a sense of embarrassment for both Nev and Megan and her family. Catching a liar in the act in real-life, makes us squirm. But the more we learn about this family, the bleaker the picture becomes and we can’t help but empathize with who Megan is/was/wasn’t. It’s a tragedy we’ve all experienced before and it isn’t the first or last time.

The internet makes it frighteningly easy to deceive and concoct intricate lies. It makes it possible to create false identities and entire webs of fictional relationships with Facebook. It creates a distance, a barrier that we have no problem accepting. But the internet also makes it easy to tear these deceptions away. The same tool used to create lies is the same tool used to detect these lies. Nev uses the internet to track down addresses, phone numbers, and news articles. He uses Google Maps to plan his trip to Megan’s house and he uses GPS to make sure he’s making the right turns. The filmmakers use tiny, pocket-sized cameras and hidden microphones to capture the events. They embrace technology in order to defeat it. That may be the most interesting part of this whole story.

Nev and Rel Schulman and Henry Joost become a little hostile in interviews when asked about the authenticity of the story in Catfish. But who can blame today’s audience for being a little skeptical? It probably started with The Last Broadcast (1998); a film shot entirely on video and edited on a computer. The movie led the audience to believe that what they were watching was real footage of a supernatural murder investigation only to see the illusion dissolve in the last 10 minutes. A year later, The Blair Witch Project (1999) was marketed as a documented true event and that the film the audience saw in theaters was in fact actual footage these three college students shot before being killed by something in the woods. Most recently, movies like Paranormal Activity and The Last Exorcism have used this hand-held, documentary aesthetic to make a film feel more real. This is another subject altogether and one worth pouring over, but the point is, one can see where the confusion and skepticism comes from. It’s healthy for an audience to question whether the events in a movie that calls itself a “reality thriller” (which is what the filmmakers claim Catfish to be) are true. Questioning the authenticity of any movie is healthy; healthy for the audience and healthy for cinema as a medium.

It’s easy to embrace the internet without really understanding how it works. It’s so simple and exciting. But we adopt vague, abstract concepts like “social networking” and “instant messaging” without knowing that all we’re really doing is communicating in codes and maths at great distances. We give-up tangibility and certainty for convenience. It’s a dangerous trend that exits in other places as well.

So, is Catfish a cautionary tale? It’s hard for me to believe that anyone from my generation would be gullible enough to get themselves in a situation like Nev’s. I don’t think this movie is telling anyone anything new. That being said, I think Nev and “Megan” were truly meant for one another. Their flaws are what attracted them to each other and they probably would have found one another in real life in one way or another. Take Karina Longworth’s analysis for example: “Nev was sucked into these relationships because they stroked his artistic ego, as well as his libido. They gave him everything that everyone wants — attention, flattery, acceptance, confidence — all without requiring him to do much real-life work.” And, on the other side of the coin, “Megan” was able to live out her sad, twisted fantasy with Nev’s help.

These sorts of relationships happen all the time in the real world, too. We meet people all the time who aren’t who they say they are. It isn’t that these real world encounters are any less painful but they’re certainly less embarrassing than being duped on Facebook. Somehow, deep down, we know Facebook and the internet are just artificial playgrounds, but we want to believe in them and trust in them because it’s so damn convenient and distant.

And yes, you’ll know why it’s called “Catfish” towards the end.

-Adam J. Robinson-

Catfish is now playing in select theaters.

I’m talking about “The Social Network”

September 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

I found the screenplay a couple of weeks ago via scriptshadow. I read it in one sitting and knew immediately that it would fill theaters and would probably garner award nominations and maybe even some wins. It’s no surprise that the movie is being released in the fall along with all of the other award hopefuls. Columbia Pictures wants to see this thing to shine. It’s also not surprising that the film is still “not yet rated” even though it’s set for release in just a couple of weeks. A PG13 rating would insure a large amount of those 500 million friends show up on opening weekend.

I noticed very few alterations or discrepancies between the script and the screen. The film played exactly how I remembered reading the screenplay. Aside from a few minor changes to dialogue to make it a little punchier, the script and film are identical. According to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, the first draft of the script was the draft the studio green-lit and was also the draft that Fincher worked from. However, Sorkin and Fincher did spend many hours fine tuning the screenplay. Sorkin based his script from a book called The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich. Although I’m not familiar with the source material, the film and the screenplay have compelled me to seek-out the book which chronicles the birth of Facebook and its growing pains. Neither I nor the audience got the chance to ask Sorkin specifically about his adaptation process which would have been insightful and probably helpful to wannabe screenwriters.

Fast paced dialogue, intercut with more, snarky, fast paced dialogue delivered like a machine gun, seemed to be the formula here. The opening scene, which is eight pages of dialogue in the script, is between Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, and his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend, Erica, played by Rooney Mara, talking about grades, popularity, and how Zuckerberg isn’t a geek but just an asshole. Cutting back and forth like a tennis match gets the audience limbered-up for the coming sequences. This specific scene, according to Sorkin and Eisenberg, was taken 99 times before David Fincher was happy. An obsession for perfection or was Fincher not entirely sure of what he was after? The more you watch this film unfold, the more you trust Fincher and his team. As Zuckerberg sits in front of a couple of computer screens, and his web-jargon filled voice-over informs us of how he hacks into various university databases, the script, and the film, intercut scenes of Harvard undergrads getting high, drunk and laid at highly exclusive parties. A juxtaposition that will eventually become an amalgam of these two worlds.  Immediately, the film builds a wall between the geeks and the popular kids. An age-old battle that we can immediately understand. Zuckerberg makes a website connecting friends when he himself apparently has none. Fincher has allowed this script to sing.

David Fincher and his DP, Jeff Cronenweth, were able to captivate us with an aggressive use of depth of field (and at one point using tilt-shift photography at a rowing competition which was my favorite sequence in the movie) made us remember that we were sitting through a motion picture and not a play. Editors, Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, will no doubt be nominated for their efforts. Fast cuts often to images we only see once and never again, is a genius technique. It builds an anticipation to see that shot again. We expect it. We want patterns and when those patterns are broken we get bothered, and when we get bothered we pay closer attention. Fincher knows this and needs to do these things when we’re essentially listening to 2 hours of non-stop dialogue amongst three different story lines: the birth of Facebook, the lawsuit with the Winklevoss twins, and the lawsuit with Zuckerberg’s “best friend,” Eduardo Saverin. Don’t worry. You needn’t know about the whole legal fiasco before going to see the movie. It all opens up perfectly. Not a moment went by while watching The Social Network, where I thought about the clock, my growling stomach or my bladder. There was never a moment where the pace was a drag. Not once did I feel the entire theater shift their weight or adjust their underwear. The audience was fully engaged and this only happens when the filmmakers and actors work perfectly in sync. It’s magic. It’s the pleasure of being manipulated.

Andrew Garfield plays Saverin, Zuckerberg’s “only friend,” in the film. Garfield’s performance, especially the last 10 minutes or so, is by far the best piece of acting in the film. His explosive encounter with co-star Jesse Eisenberg is riveting. Jesse Eisenberg could not have been more perfectly cast. Here, his cold, blank expressions and dry delivery, plays perfectly. Justin Timberlake plays Sean Parker and is just the right dose of brightness, energy, and coolness. Timberlake is no cause for alarm. He belongs in this film. Armie Hammer, who plays both of the Winklevoss twins, is a chiseled Greco sculpture and is a perfect “bad guy” foiled against Eisenberg’s scrawny nerdiness.

Aaron Sorkin said that what drew him to the Facebook story was how very Greek it was; a story about friends and betrayal, jealousy, power and money. Sorkin also made sure that the audience understood that the story told in the film is a conglomerate of truths from the three parties involved in the birth and afterbirth of the company. Sorkin dramatized these various truths like any great filmmaker would and does not flatly propose who the heros and villains are. Heros turn into villains and villains turn into victims. It’s all very gray and cloudy and that’s perfect. Did Zuckerberg steal his idea of Facebook from the Winklevoss twins? Do we care? Do we want to see the Zuckerberg geek beat the gorgeous, rich Winklevoss jocks? Did Zuckerberg cheat his best friend out of billions of dollars? Kind of? All of these questions are not put to rest and nor should they be. Not only do these questions allow the movie to have a lasting impression on its audience, but these questions are still new and sensitive. After all, Facebook and its mess of creators and developers are still around and active and probably still pissed. A weakness may be that the script tries to squeeze every bit of drama out of seemingly minor instances. Such as the Saverin Final Club initiation scenes and the “scarf burning” scene. Who could blame the film for heightening these seemingly insignificant plot points? They need all the help they can get. Sorkin may have had no choice but to focus on the story and not the thematic questions since hehad never used Facebook before woking on the screenplay. The Social Network doesn’t try to delve into philosophy, either. It’s a movie that wants to introduce you to the geeky kid who developed the most influential web site of our time. I guess that’s okay. It doesn’t pretend to do this and it hasn’t attempted it and failed completely. There is definitely room to explore but maybe there’s a sequel brewing.

The most fascinating part of The Social Network is Zuckerberg’s motivation for creating Facebook. Whether the motivation is truth or purely a dramatized footnote, is hard to say. In the film, Zuckerberg created Facebook out of social frustrations, specifically, it all began with a break-up. His girlfriend dumped him and the only way he could deal with this was to geek-out and develop a website that was shallow but popular enough to crash the Harvard network, get him academic probation, and get some attention around campus with a website called “facemash.com” that allowed its users to vote on who was more attractive by presenting pictures of two female classmates. It wasn’t Facebook but it was a seed. And soon after, impressed with his creativity and skill, the Winklevoss twins approached and presented Zuckerberg with an idea for a website that connected Harvard students online with profiles and pictures. Zuckerberg said he’d help the twins develop their idea but disappeared for a month only to resurface with a live website called “thefacebook.com” which greatly resembled the Winklevoss’ idea. Zuckerberg contends that his idea was better and that he stole none of the code used for the site. Zuckerberg didn’t need the help of rich jocks to start a website. He especially didn’t need any friends. He just needed employees and money and an overwhelming obsession. Of course the great irony is that Zuckerberg traded any real friends he may have had for virtual ones on the web all in an effort to gain popularity in the real world. He was left with no one on his side but was somehow able to feel the pulse of social networking and anticipate its evolution. At least, that’s what the film constructs. You’ll have to decide for yourself.

Zuckerberg is a billionaire who has changed the world; for better or worse, we don’t know yet. But it’s certain that whatever he has done is great. It is beyond good or bad. No one has made a billion dollars without giving and taking a backstab or two. No one has changed the world without pissing some of it off. If audiences or the general public doesn’t understand this then they’re living in a fantasy world. Sorkin calls Zuckerberg a “tragic hero.” Zuckerberg was a martyr for what the internet and its users wanted it to become.

Towards the end of the film, Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) declares, “First we lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re gonna live on the internet,” a slight chill fills the air. A little bit of fear finds its way in to our hearts and minds. Is this what we want? I don’t know. Apparently? The Social Network doesn’t delve deep into ideas of internet life versus organic life or what the internet has done to us as human beings but it mentions it. The Social Network is more concerned with the tried and true surface level story points like that of the geek who conquers all. It’s a courtroom drama. It’s about money, power, and friendship first and foremost. It asks, “What is a friend?” Do you need them? The film even suggests that becoming a billionaire was just a side affect in trying to get someone to like you. Was that girl on Zuckerberg’s mind the whole time? Was she the only driving force for his pursuits? Maybe. But this is Hollywood we’re talking about. In any case, all of these seemingly superficial hooks are what keep us interested in the first place.

The Social Network, despite its reliance on dialogue, and sometimes overly exploitative use of semi-dramatic events (see the “scarf burning scene” in the third act), is a surprisingly brisk ride. Although it is supported primarily by surface level plot points, its compelling story and genius editing techniques allow me to forgive its lack of depth. That may all sound like the movie was a dud but I guarantee you that you’ll have fun and you and your date can decide if Mark Zuckerberg is a rich asshole, a lonesome geek or someone in between. My answer is: Who cares? He’s CEO… Bitch!

(And, if you’re into comparisons, The Social Network is not better than Fincher’s Zodiac. But it is better than The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by many many miles. I was never a huge Fight Club supporter so I have to say I like The Social Network better than that, too. Just so we’re clear.)

If you want an overview of the whole Facebook saga, I recommend reading The New Yorker magazine article about Mark Zuckerberg.

-Adam J. Robinson-

The Social Network opens nationwide October 1st.

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