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.

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