Monday, October 11, 2010
Modern Love: Catfish
I don’t need to go to Metacritic to know that many (most?) critics will hold Catfish in contempt. Here’s a movie that uses mysteriousness as both a dramatic device and a marketing campaign (“Don’t let anyone tell you what it is,” the poster warns), so it’s gimmicky. It’s a movie that was made in a shot-on-the-fly documentary style, so it’s lacking in calculated photographic splendor. It’s a movie made by two young filmmakers with no other major releases to their credit, so it’s lacking in auteurist pedigree. It’s also a movie that is quite possibly deceitful and exploitive, and so it’s (perhaps) morally reprehensible, too. In short, Catfish is the kind of movie that so many serious cinephiles will feel duty bound to dismiss as an affront to cinematic artistry, as if calling Catfish “great” would suggest that directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman are the second coming of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It’s a movie that inspires snobbery. And so I might be tempted to dismiss Catfish, too, if I didn’t find it so damn compelling. Gimmicky? Sloppy? Amateurish? Deceitful? Exploitive? Yeah, that sounds like Catfish. But so does this: fascinating and moving.
Catfish crosses genres. It begins as a love story for our times – one that unfolds through text messages, Facebook posts and Photoshopped photographs. It becomes an All the President’s Men-type investigative procedural, with the phone calls and card catalog sorts of Woodward and Bernstein replaced by search engine queries and Google Maps. Catfish then becomes a thriller, as the filmmakers and their principal subject, Nev Schulman, continue their investigative efforts by traveling up a long country driveway to peer through barn windows in the middle of the night. By this point, Catfish has already provided a few mild surprises, but nothing has been especially shocking, and so it’s about now that anyone familiar with the warning on the movie’s poster would be justified in expecting things to take a Blair Witch Project-like turn from (supposed) documentary realism into outlandish drama. But Catfish doesn’t do that, and ultimately that might be the film’s biggest surprise. In the end, this film is almost too real, painfully real, as it leaves those lighter themes behind in order to examine with casual yet gut-wrenching frankness more severe themes of emotional suffering and self-delusion.
I should probably pause now to say that I have no idea whether Catfish should be taken at its word. In the broadest sense, the film is about a relationship between a New York photographer, Nev, and a family from Ishpeming, Michigan: Abby the 8-year-old who paints stunning representations of Nev’s photos; Angela, the beautiful mother who sends packages of Abby’s paintings to Nev; and Megan, Abby’s much older half-sister, who slowly develops a long-distance romance with Nev. Are these people actors? Is what happens staged? Is this performance art akin to the Casey Affleck-Joaquin Phoenix collaboration I’m Still Here? I don’t know. All I know is that the film offers no screenplay or story credits, and it otherwise carries itself in all the ways you would expect from a truthful film. Prior to seeing Catfish I avoided reading about it because I wanted to experience the movie without expectations (other than expecting the unexpected). Since seeing the movie, I’ve maintained my distance from any sources that would validate or invalidate what happens on screen for two reasons: (1) I’m no more interested hearing Joost and Schulman explain away the ambiguity of this film than I would be to hear the Coen brothers explain A Serious Man; and (2) because I think the courtroom factuality of what’s on screen is incidental. If it’s all a hoax, sure, the filmmakers are proving their own shallowness. No argument there. But their sins wouldn’t change the film itself. Even if Catfish isn’t specifically authentic – and, who knows, maybe it is – it’s certainly revealing of broad truths.
The most penetrating part of Catfish might be its (online) love story. Mindy Kaling of The Office called Catfish “a really fucked up You’ve Got Mail,” and that’s true in the Twitter one-linerness in which that analysis was delivered. But Catfish is more than that, because it doesn’t just show that people fall in love online, it shows precisely how two people fall in love online. You’ve Got Mail gives us Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan typing on laptops while dictating their written thoughts through voiceover narration. Catfish, on the other hand, gives us the online flirtations of its couple, Nev and Megan, in their original written form. That’s not just more accurate, it’s more honest, too, because communication via Facebook or text messages is vastly different than what happens face to face or over the telephone (or through voiceover narration), where body language and vocal inflection make the words themselves hardly necessary to make a point. Written online conversation is often ambiguous, or, to avoid that ambiguity, extremely overt. And if on Facebook, those conversations can be semi-public, too. So when Megan posts to her Facebook wall that she’s “missing someone [she’s] never met,” it’s a sentence that inspires as many questions as answers. Is Megan truly sad? Or is she being flirtatious? Is this what she actually feels, or is it what she wants people to think she feels? Are we correct to assume that she’s referring to Nev, or could it be someone else? We can’t be sure, and Nev isn’t sure either. But when he uses Photoshop to put images of him and Megan in the same frame and saves the file as “someday.jpg,” we know how he feels. It’s as romantic a gesture as anything a guy has ever done in a Cameron Crowe movie, and, come to think of it, far less creepy.
It’s almost a shame that Catfish stops being that straightforward love story, because I can’t think of another film that better portrays what modern love often looks like. But thankfully Catfish’s contemporary insight doesn’t stop with its romance. Hollywood should be ashamed, for example, at how exciting it is to watch these three ordinary dudes using basic computer technology to do their investigative work when there are so many movies and TV shows featuring detectives using tricked-out government databases and advanced DNA evidence to crack their cases. Given its use of modern digital gadgetry, it won’t be long until Catfish seems dated, but it will be dated in a good way, in the way that All the President’s Men or Zodiac are dated, because it reflects the way the world works in the time of the film’s setting. That's different than all those CSI shows, which simply reflect an entertainment fad. One of Catfish’s greatest scenes involves Nev ducking under the covers to recite a particularly flirtatious text message exchange he had with Megan. Nev’s embarrassment in that scene is timeless, as is the horniness of their initial texts. But someday the rhythm of those exchanges might seem as bygone as the cadence of written correspondences from the early 19th Century, when thoughts were composed in pen and ink and then shipped with great effort over great distances and with great delay. Many of the things about this film that seem trivial now will be historically fascinating later on.
Speaking of later on, I’ve written about Catfish to this point without going into detail about the events related to its surprise conclusion. That’s intentional, as I do believe the movie is best experienced as a discovery. But because this film deserves to be reviewed in totality, I’ll say this: My biggest problem with the film’s final act is that its extremeness threatens to overshadow all that comes before it. Is the conclusion exploitive? It is, because the filmmakers benefit from someone else’s embarrassment and suffering. There’s no way around that. (This documentary is hardly breaking new ground with that design.) Nevertheless, I found Catfish to be overwhelmingly compassionate and the actions of the filmmakers to be entirely justified. For what it’s worth, I take the film mostly at face value. (I suspect the filmmakers were actually hip to the big picture before they pretend to be, but whatever.) Even if I’m wrong, though, even if this is all a lie, Catfish reveals human emotions with a genuineness that’s profoundly affecting, while asking us to consider what relationships are made out of. That sounds like great cinema to me.