I went into the screening of Catfish as most viewers are likely to: without a clue as to what was about to unfurl. The recent promos for the film, depicting a Blair Witch-esque odyssey, are unlikely to clear things up. But that’s the fun of it. It’s an oddball little documentary with a weird title and a twist that ought to be protected. So what can one even say about it without pissing on the parade? That it’s a highly enjoyable, highly suspect slice of life investigation.
Right up front you’ll meet Nev Schulman, a New York-based photographer and brother of filmmaker Ariel (Rel) Schulman, who directs the film along with Henry Joost. He begins receiving paintings of his photos from an 8 year old girl on Facebook, Abby. Her talented brushstrokes of his inspired photos have earned Abby both a reputation and a living; the paintings are sold online and at Michigan galleries where she lives. Amazed at the power of the social network, that his work could inspire someone he has never had reason to come in contact with, lead Nev to reach out to Abby and her family. He meets her mother and sister through Facebook and becomes entwined in her social circle.
It is when Nev “meets” Megan, Abby’s older sister, that things take a turn. A good looking romantic and, let’s face it, a nerd, Nev finds himself quickly falling for Megan, and elevates the relationship from an online rendezvous to phone calls and naughty texts. They chat online constantly and she even records a few songs for him. Or does she? When she uploads a song in under a half hour of the request and e-mails it to him, Nev gets suspicious of her abilities. In an online stakeout, Nev, Rel and Henry scour the web to find empirical proof of Megan and Abby’s existence, coming up short. So they decide that they must, for the sake of the film, head to Michigan and confront the family head on.
Catfish joins a long list of documentaries of dubious provenance this year. Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop was supposedly directed by the mysterious street artist, though many of the pieces of that film seem staged, or at the very least provoked. Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix are unsuccessfully billing their I’m Still Here as an actuality while the film has hoax written all over it (even in an opening title card). And here we have Joost and Schulman’s work. By the end, the pieces fit perhaps too perfectly; the narrative is so clear, following an Aristotelean arc so closely it seems as though it must be staged. Perhaps, but perhaps not. Look around the world for the absurd, for stories that seem like something out of the imagination, impossible. You hear about it all of the time; why shouldn’t something like that happen to a small group of filmmakers? It’s possible, at the very least.
However, looking beyond whether or not you believe in it, we can still look at the film objectively, as a movie. In a season that will likely be dominated by David Fincher’s The Social Network, referred to colloquially as “The Facebook Movie”, I think Catfish is far more deserving of that nickname. It is a testament to our current trend of virtual self; an analysis of what we will allow ourselves to not only share, but to feel publicly. Like it or not, we all live in a virtual world of our own design; posting, tweeting, liking, etc. When that brushes up against the real world, the meat space, and we don’t like what we see, we all have to find a way to cope, to reconcile both worlds. Joost and Schulman have delivered a film that, even if not entirely true (though I think it is) serves as an excellent parable for our current obsession with the virtual. It will no doubt be the more lasting “Facebook Movie” of 2010.