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.

39 comments:

Hokahey said...

Great cinema is if it works. I'd like to see this - if it comes to the Cape - because I'd love to see how it works. The preview sure worked on me!

Steven Santos said...

Part 1 of 2:

First, I will first state that this is a well-written, thoughtful review, as always, Jason. Secondly, I do not agree with you at all about this film. I watched "Catfish" almost a month before it was released, knowing only about some of the hype it got out of Sundance. First off, I am quite stunned that not many people saw where the movie was going because this movie would have no reason to exist unless that third act twist happened, so I spent pretty much the first hour waiting for the inevitable surprised that the filmmakers did not see this coming. Or perhaps, they did?

This leads us to the debate about whether the movie is real or staged. Personally, I think it's staged because some things that happened on screen do not make sense. For example, why did they find their postcard sitting in that mailbox if it had already been marked "Return to Sender"? But, more importantly, regardless of whether it is real or not, I found its ideas obvious. If it was real, then I felt that the film is more of an unintentional study about exploitative and opportunistic filmmakers than the person they think they're making a movie about in the last half hour. If the movie was staged, then it makes me believe that the filmmakers did this because, otherwise, its ideas about relationships would seem trite in an actual narrative film. It seems to be a common device today to present a fake reality to give such vacant ideas a legitimacy that they do not actually have. As if filmmakers want to sell you a reality rather than creating it. That final monologue about catfish fraught with symbolism would have been laughed at and ridiculed if this had been an actual drama.

Either way, I wound up feeling pity towards the character they focus on at the end, but I still don't think there was much insight presented about her. On the other hand, I actively despised the filmmakers by the end because, whether their film was real or not, they came across as either exploitative or just plain creatively bankrupt.

Steven Santos said...

Part 2 of 2:

Matt Zoller Seitz just tweeted last night, in defense of the film, a Herzog quote about the matter of reality where he says ""To acknowledge a fake as fake contributes only to the triumph of accountants." In short, basically it is more about the finished product than the process that got us there. But, I do think the process of this film is rather important. If it is real, it seemed more like the filmmakers were opportunistic in getting their story rather than trying to understand who that person was. However, if it wasn't real, then I fail to see how this movie differs from reality television. I think by now, many people realize how scripted reality tv is, not to mention how many moments are constructed in the editing room. (Disclosure: I may have constructed a moment or two myself, which made some of the editing tricks in "Catfish" a bit recognizable.) Often, reality tv pretends to offer moments that are supposed to make you feel as if you are watching real life unfold, which, in turn, is supposed to make it more relatable. But it's bullshit. Because, in reality, the producers of a reality show are trying to create dramatic moments. Not genuine ones, mind you, but tired retreads of moments they get from movies or scripted television. Basically, I think the embrace of this fake reality is what failed dramatists resort to when they need to pass off creatively bankrupt notions. Reality tv also tends to thrive on humiliating as many of its subjects on camera as possible.

"Catfish", to me, represents this. If this had been a narrative film, who would have taken its ideas seriously? That's where I think this film differs from what Herzog does with his own docs. I never think Herzog is trying to sell us reality, but I do think the presentation of his ideas are honest. He's often up front about trying to fit the subject matter into his recurring themes. But I don't know what "Catfish" is trying to accomplish other than call attention to the filmmakers for either being lucky enough to be part of a juicy real life narrative with a plot twist or a vehicle for the trite notion that people are not who they present themselves on the internet, to which I can only reply, "No shit!".

Jason Bellamy said...

Steven! Way to bring it! Quite honestly, I love your dissenting argument here, and I agree with a lot of it.

Many replies. Here goes ...

* It seems to be a common device today to present a fake reality to give such vacant ideas a legitimacy that they do not actually have.

This is absolutely, positively correct -- and it is so regardless of whether Catfish is a mostly authentic doc, with minimal dramatizations, or whether it's an outright drama. And you just nailed the bigger picture, too, whether we're talking reality TV or documentary-style filmmaking in dramatic movies, etc. Well said!

* That final monologue about catfish fraught with symbolism would have been laughed at and ridiculed if this had been an actual drama.

Well, if it was in a Clint Eastwood movie, people would call it brilliant. But I digress. Yes, the beauty, if you will, of that monologue is directly tied to the idea that this film is "true" overall, and thus that the man delivering that analogy is "true." In other words, from a journalism perspective, it's a great quote (if that's what it is). But if it was written in, if the character is conjured from the filmmakers' imaginations, then what it reveals isn't the character so much as the writers, in which case your analogy is right on.

* I actively despised the filmmakers by the end because, whether their film was real or not, they came across as either exploitative or just plain creatively bankrupt.

I think that reaction is totally fair, and it doesn't surprise me in the least. Personally, taking this film as (mostly) truth, I thought that the filmmakers showed a tremendous amount of compassion, probably because I expected them to take a more "How to Catch a Child Predator" tone when they delivered the "gotcha," and you must at least agree with me on this one that they don't do that. (Which doesn't mean there isn't room to find their compassion offensive and exploitive anyway).

(More coming ...)

Jason Bellamy said...

* "To acknowledge a fake as fake contributes only to the triumph of accountants." In short, basically it is more about the finished product than the process that got us there. But, I do think the process of this film is rather important. ... [I]f it wasn't real, then I fail to see how this movie differs from reality television.

If Catfish isn't real, then, no, it doesn't differ in any way from reality TV. Or at least it might not.

Let me say this in support, I guess you could say, of reality TV. I don't watch much of it, but when I do I know very well that it is at least as much fabricated as it is unscripted, and perhaps that's being generous. So if I "enjoy" (to pick a word) reality TV with this understanding, knowing exactly what it is, then essentially I'm enjoying "reality" TV as dramatic TV, which is what it is. And that's totally justified. The problem, I think, comes when "reality TV" has entertainment value only because we believe it's real. And that's what you're getting at with Catfish, obviously.

That said, and for what it's worth, I watched this film pretty much expecting that when I got to the closing credits there would be a "written by" credit in there somewhere. So I enjoyed the film for the reasons I stated in my review even with the expectation that it was a drama taking on the guise of reality in an effort to enable the film to capture the large drama of life's everyday moments.

Here's what I mean by that: When we go to the movies to see a love story, we expect at least one gesture to be somewhat epic, somewhat cinematic, somewhat larger than life. Since I mentioned Cameron Crowe in my review, think of Lloyd Dobbler with that boombox. That's a moment that takes your comment about the catfish monologue and flips it on its head: if that happened in real life we'd laugh at it. But as a cinematic representation of romance, it works. (I can't stand most Crowe movies, but even I like that scene, while recognizing how creepy it is, if you really think about it.)

So in this way, the documentary style of Catfish, if that's all that it is, frees up the filmmakers to show these small, banal exchanges over Facebook that happen every day and that, to the people involved, are packed with boombox-over-the-head kinds of emotions. When Megan writes that she's missing someone she's never even met, that seems to me to perfectly evoke the kinds of relationships that are now easily found online. That's "real" to me. It's "real" even if it was written by a screenwriter. But if the documentary artifice is removed, if that same line is delivered by Meg Ryan in You've Got Mail, that same line is less "real," less reflective of the actual world, than it is dramatized and reflective of the romance genre.

So that's the way in which, personally, it doesn't matter if Catfish is real or staged, because if it is staged, I think there are justifiable reasons for the documentary artifice, even if I still agree with you that it's a "common device ... to give such vacant ideas a legitimacy that they do not actually have."

(Still more coming ...)

Jason Bellamy said...

That's where I think this film differs from what Herzog does with his own docs. I never think Herzog is trying to sell us reality, but I do think the presentation of his ideas are honest. He's often up front about trying to fit the subject matter into his recurring themes.

So let's talk Herzog vs. Catfish, because I agree with you that the process matters, and thus I think the same rules should apply to Herzog that apply to these directors. (And, sadly, I'm not sure they do in many cases. Which is to say that I think people let Herzog get away with shit that they wouldn't allow if it was tried by, oh, three American dudes in their 20s, or however old those guys in Catfish are.)

Let's start with Catfish: I stand by what I stated in my review. If this film is all fabricated, and if the filmmakers are going to great lengths to conceal that, it reveals that they are shallow, that they themselves think their film only has merit if it's perceived to be real. And if that's the case, they would read my previous comment and not understand why some of the banal moments captured in this film have the ability to be powerful even if dramatized. So if this is all a hoax, the filmmakers are frauds. The question becomes whether that makes the film a fraud. I think that's what MZS is trying to get at with that Herzog quote -- the idea that this could all be bullshit but that we could regard it then as a representation of reality, rather than as reality itself, and still find meaning. I agree with that, in the big picture. But whenever Herzog employs that defense for his films, I call bullshit.

Here's the problem with Herzog: His documentaries thrive on the suggestion of accountant's truth (just as much as, and sometimes more than, Catfish does). He uses the perception of and suggestion of accountant's truth to his benefit. So he's being incredibly disingenuous whenever he reverse pivots and claims that he has no interest in accountant's truth, because he relies on the inherent power of accountant's truth all the time in his documentaries.

(More coming ...)

Jason Bellamy said...

A good example can be found in Little Dieter Needs to Fly. It's a story Herzog wound up dramatizing with Rescue Dawn. So why do a documentary? To show the audience the man himself. If Herzog wanted only to capture the emotions of this kind of man, he could have had an actor step in to fill Dieter's shoes. Instead, he uses Dieter, because there's power in seeing this "real" person.

There are scenes in the film in which, it has since acknowledged, Herzog put words in Dieter's mouth. I'm not too offended by that. I could defend those cinematic sleights of hand by saying that Herzog, having spent a considerable amount of time with Dieter, heard him convey certain emotions that Herzog then needed to get on film and helped for that to happen. I'm fine with those shades of gray.

But Herzog also gives Dieter actions to perform, and those actions give Dieter specific emotions that aren't supported anywhere else in the film. For example, within the documentary, Herzog says that Dieter now repeatedly opens and closes doors any time he goes into a room to ensure that the door is unlocked and that he can escape. Herzog shows Dieter performing this act. Trouble is, it's bullshit. Dieter doesn't do that. Never did.

That's problematic because those actions suggest a certain level of trauma that Dieter doesn't suffer from. So Herzog is making Dieter his own character. And that would be fine if Herzog was doing that to make Dieter some kind of dramatic everyman. But that's not what he's doing. Instead, he's leveraging the "reality" of Dieter to make the scene with the door all the more powerful. If Little Dieter was suggested to be all drama, that door scene would have less impact.

Thus it's hypocritical for Herzog to thumb his nose at accountant's truth, because he relies on the perception of truth all the time. If Herzog wants to prove he doesn't care, he could run a disclaimer before his docs stating "Many Scenes In This Film Were Manufactured For Dramatic Effect." But I suspect he wouldn't do that. Herzog prefers to let his films be digested as fact and then, once interviewed, reveal that parts were dramatized, while acting as if he's flabbergasted there was every any doubt. That's the same approach Casey Affleck took with I'm Still Here

(Still a little more coming ...)

Jason Bellamy said...

* But I don't know what "Catfish" is trying to accomplish other than call attention to the filmmakers for either being lucky enough to be part of a juicy real life narrative with a plot twist or a vehicle for the trite notion that people are not who they present themselves on the internet, to which I can only reply, "No shit!".

As I suggested in my review, part of me wishes that this film simply remained the everyday-type love story that it was in the beginning.

I suspect that the filmmakers guessed that the family from Michigan wasn't real from the start and so they picked up their cameras and then played along. The most telling scene for me is when Nev, early in the film, is talking about all the things that happened around the Michigan family's house ... the snow, the downed power line, the chicken, etc. From that moment on, I assumed it was staged because it sounded less like someone on Facebook trying to establish the reality of something than it sounded like screenwriters trying to establish the reality of something. If I'm correct about that, then all the action leading up to the confrontation in Michigan is, in effect, "staged," even if what happens in Michigan wasn't.

Yes, there's a "No shit" factor here. And if this is all a hoax, it's sad the filmmakers thought they needed to have the "reality" at the end be so extreme to have an impact. Again, if it's fraudulent, the ending should be penalized for piling on.

But the "no shit" factor would only disqualify my feelings about this film if my feelings were all tied to utter shock that this kind of thing happens -- that people pretend to be things they aren't on Facebook. But that's not why I responded to this film.

Holy cow. That was epic. I should have just written another post.

Thanks for the thoughts, Steven. This is exactly the kind of debate I hoped the film would inspire -- a debate on what it means if the film is real or not, rather than a long debate only about whether it is real or not.

Steven Santos said...

Part 1 of 2:

I appreciate the response, Jason. I had actually wanted to write about the movie and these ideas in a post, but the last two months have been brutal, scheduling-wise. But I think these ideas are important to discuss, as I do think we'll be seeing other documentaries that will continue to raise these questions in the future. It also illustrates how each of us approach films differently.

With other films, I am more than willing to allow a certain fabrication of the events if the presentation of those events allows for a greater truth. This debate has been famously going on about Michael Moore for sometime, in which there have been accusations leveled at him about whether his films falsified facts. I usually take Moore's films as propaganda and judge them on the filmmaking, as well as how effectively he presents his case. That is why I believe only half of his films work, while the other half seem undercooked and too manipulative in their persuasiveness.

I certainly do not mean to cut Herzog a break, though his presence and opinions are so prevalent in his documentaries that I cannot honestly say he means to present them as objective truth and then reverses himself after his movie is seen. Like Moore, he is clearly shaping reality to serve his ideas. The example you bring up of "Little Dieter" I would fault more for being an action lifted from other movies about people who have underwent trauma, which is why it probably stands out as being phony not just in something perceived to be a documentary, but in most narrative films.

The problem I have with "Catfish" is the level of play-acting on the filmmakers' parts to suggest that it is real. And it is difficult to not comment on them personally because they have more screen time in their own film than Moore or Herzog ever did in any of theirs. In effect, they are the main characters of "Catfish" until the very end. Perhaps, if I was going to spend this much time with them, I almost wished there had been a more self-critical look about what they were doing. Instead, that time is dedicated to overselling this as a narrative, in which the more they find contradictions in Megan's story, the closer we move to the big third act reveal. My disdain for this type of narrative may also have to do with many films justifying their existence these days by how much they can pull the wool over your eyes at the end. I talked about this with "Shutter Island" earlier in the year.

Steven Santos said...

Part 2 of 2:

While they may not present the third act reveal, as you say, if it were "To Catch a Predator", I kept asking myself the same question if the movie were to be taken at face value: Why would you want to subject that woman to your prying camera regardless? Whether the third act is fictional or not, I'm still not quite sure what the filmmakers thought they were trying to accomplish. Here's the bigger problem: Megan is sort of an enigma when we don't see her, but still remains one when she is revealed to be someone else. I do not believe the filmmakers necessarily had much curiosity about who she was, as much as about defining her by her current living situation and just using that to explain why she connected to them in the first place. That's what "Catfish" shares with a lot of reality television: broad characterizations and stereotypes. It does not show contempt towards her like most of those shows (and she still comes across better than our main characters/filmmakers), but the way she is presented is a little more than condescending and pitiful.

I do think how we see this depends on how bothered we are by the notion whether the film is real or not. I will admit a bigger factor is that, in this case, I find it hard to separate the filmmakers from the film because their onscreen narrative requires that I have to think about them not just as characters but their intentions and motivations for making the film.

Jason Bellamy said...

First on Herzog: Even though he narrates his films, and even though it's common knowledge among film buffs that he fabricates things, that's different than Moore, who very plainly goes into his films with an agenda. You could know nothing about Moore and spot that. But any moviegoer who doesn't read interviews with Herzog -- and let's face it, that's the VAST majority -- enters and exits his films with no sign whatsoever that they shouldn't be taking things at face value. So in Herzog's case I don't object so much to his tactic as his air of confusion when the subject of authenticity is approached, as if he can't understand how anyone could have possibly confused fabrication with reality, or as if it isn't even deserving of debate. Because of course Herzog himself has proved to be interested in reality, as we see in his fascination with that runaway penguin in Encounters at the End of the World. Anyway, enough on that.

* I find it hard to separate the filmmakers from the film because their onscreen narrative requires that I have to think about them not just as characters but their intentions and motivations for making the film.

I think that's totally fair. I should probably mention that maybe one of the reasons I wasn't put off by the filmmakers is that I went in expecting utter fabrication. That was my hunch. I truly thought the film might descend into some Blair Witch-type thriller. So when the film became more realistic rather than less so (giving the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt for the moment), I was pleasantly surprised, whereas you were onto the filmmakers' destination from the start.

Good debate, my friend.

Sheila O'Malley said...

I haven't seen Catfish yet but this was a fascinating review, and I loved the debate in the comments as well. I look forward to seeing it for myself.

Something like this happened to me when I was a little kid (from what I gather from the few spoilers I have read here and there). This was pre-Internet, and a person found me because of a letter I had had published in Seventeen magazine where I referenced Harrison Ford and Chevy Chase, my two favorite actors at the time. This person - through much detective work - tracked down my address - and wrote me a letter - about how much she loved those two actors too! She told me she was 15. I was 13 at the time. We struck up a correspondence that went on for two years. I thought I was dealing with a peer, so I opened my heart to this person, thinking she was a new friend. Anyway, she finally confessed that she was a 33 year old woman. I have blocked out much of this event - it was such a frightening thing, a real betrayal - and lots of other crazy stuff happened. She sent me porn through the mail, for example. I, thinking that it was from a person who was a peer, curious about sex like I was, was fascinated by it - but then, when it turned out to be an adult ...

I hid all of this from my parents. They knew I had a "pen pal" but had no idea she was sending me porn.

I hear about these Internet scams now (the Janna St. James story most recently) and always think of that monstrous predator who had found me out as a child because of a letter I wrote to Seventeen that they published and somehow thought that sending me shots of people having sex and giving each other blow jobs was somehow an appropriate thing to do to a 13 year old girl.

It's a scary world out there.

I'll certainly be seeing Catfish with my own experience in mind, that can't be helped. I guess I'm just curious.

Jason Bellamy said...

Sheila: Wow. Thanks for sharing such a personal story. I hope you'll come back and provide your reaction to the film once you get around to seeing it, whenever that is.

I think your comment points to another reason I like this movie, or at least why I wasn't put off by it: True, there's no surprise that people pretend to be things they aren't on the Internet. But how many movies have really explored that, tried to get to the heart of it?

Sheila, I don't want this to sound insensitive, but as I was reading about your experience I was disgusted by what you went through but also curious what could prompt someone to do that? Did your "pen pal" have malicious intent? Was she totally delusional? Was she "just" lonely? (And I say "just" there, because any properly functioning person in their 30s should not be reading Seventeen and reaching out to kids.) In the end, sure, Catfish exploits someone for its own entertainment gains, but in the meantime we also get a rare glimpse of what goes into things like this.

It's interesting: I really respect Steven's counter arguments and totally understand them, and yet I haven't wavered a bit on my respect for this film.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Jason - Thanks for your nice reply. I had second thoughts about my comment yesterday - but by then it was too late. My main curiosity about this film is, admittedly, personal, and I used to joke that if anything ever "happened" to Harrison Ford or Chevy Chase, if they were kidnapped, for example, she would be the first person I would imagine as doing such a thing. I was a tween, basically, and I loved Chevy Chase and Harrison Ford in the way a teenage girl does. But she ... she was on a whole other level that I remember, even back then, being freaked out by. She would write me letters imagining what their penises looked like, etc. And my response was a totally age-appropriate: "EW!!"

She would write erotic stories where she was Harrison Ford's daughter - and Harrison Ford would have sex with her. She sent me these stories. So imagine the pathology ... imagine what she probably had gone through ... (not to excuse her behavior). Only as an adult do I see what was going on. I read the stories and frankly they scared the shit out of me. I loved Han Solo, that was my "way in". But she had fantasies about him being a drunken father sneaking into her room at night.

I threw away the entire correspondence years ago, something I now regret. But here's my take: she was (central casting) a morbidly obese woman who lived in a trailer with her deaf aunt. This all came out when she came clean. She had never sent me a picture of herself. She had been married to a man who abused her. She told me all this when she finally "came clean". During our correspondence, she became a born-again Christian and that was her main reason to confess to me. She begged me to keep the friendship going, but I cut her off. Eventually, her pleading postcards stopped.

It wasn't until years later that I actually realized I had been abused. That's how insidious these things are!

It is now my take that this is a woman who ached with loneliness. She was one of the forgotten, one of the put=aside - she had all of these passionate feelings for Harrison Ford and Chevy Chase - and what are the odds that I would write a letter to Seventeen magazine that they would publish - and she would happen to read the magazine and see the letter and think: "THAT IS MY SOUL MATE."

I spoke to my mother about this years later when I told her what this woman had done to me, and my mother was so upset. I do remember my mother being very cautious about my correspondence with this person, but she had no idea what was going on.

Loneliness and abuse had made this woman a monster. I use that term specifically. I think she had ZERO boundaries. I wouldn't be surprised at all if she was still "at it". The Internet is made for sick people like her. I've actually looked for her, believe it or not - but I can't find her anywhere.

I might see Catfish today after my morning meeting. I'll definitely come back to chat once I see it.

Thanks again.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Catfish is a fake from start to finish. I cannot believe that so many otherwise intelligent people ahve been taken in by it. It's the cinematic equivalent of Laura Albert. Cloverfield is more convincing.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Jason - So I saw it and am still percolating with it. This is my subjective first-response to it. Obviously my story with my pen pal is way sicker than this one, if it's real. My sense of it is that the boys had some idea of what they were getting into, and just decided to follow it - in a rather ghoulishly interested way. I didn't get a sense that Nev felt "betrayed" or anything like that. There was a hollowness to his responses here - he never believed in the "relationship" with Megan anyway. He says it a couple of times, "This would never work. You're there, I'm here." So there wasn't a sense that he was, in some way, "broken" by this Internet "prank". Again, I kept thinking of the Janna St. James story and how much more compelling that particular story was, compared to this one. The elaborate nature of the hoax, the lengths to which she was willing to go ...

It was that sense of horrible discovery that I was missing in the film. The two scenes that rang "truest" for me was when they found out she had posted a song that was a cover from someone else on Youtube - and the other one was when Nev read out loud the "juicy" texts he had been sending this fictional girl. That seemed true. I felt his embarrassment, his shame at being "duped". THAT was what I wanted more of. THAT was what I wanted to see. I felt that other than those two scenes, Nev "presented himself" in that Reality TV way people keep mentioning: Like, "Hi, here I am, a character in a movie, and I know how to 'present myself' because we've all seen reality TV shows and we know how people present themselves." It lacked depth. Now perhaps I am looking for something in the film that shouldn't be there. In other words, that I am criticizing the film for not being what I wanted it to be. That's a fair charge. I like a sense of seeing things UNFOLD, especially in a documentary - Capturing the Friedmans is an example of what I mean. So that was lacking for me in Catfish.

Their trip to Michigan felt planned - with the body-mikes and everything else all set up. Too much like little boys giggling at playing a game of "Gotcha". I totally GET the impulse behind that trip, by the way - it's just that I think there is a far more interesting story to be told in this material.

... More to come

Sheila O'Malley said...

Part 2:


Now here's an interesting thing: During the section of the film where Nev was interviewing her, and she started crying, three separate people got up and walked out of the theatre. I wish I had chased after them to ask them why. Either they felt duped, or they didn't like the sympathetic path the film took in that moment. Up until then, everyone was too busy laughing at how stupid Nev must have been to "believe", and how stupid and crazy this person must have been ... But to ask her questions about Why and let her answer?

My heart ached for this woman who seemed relatively harmless - especially seeing the struggles of her current-day life. Good God. Her words that all of these different people she created were "fragments of myself" was moving to me. But I didn't feel the sympathies of Nev or the other two with her (except for the moment when the guy in the back seat said, "I don't find her malicious - I just find her sad") - That's how I felt. But the film's point-of-view about it all was obscured. I wish it had been clearer.

And perhaps Nev didn't feel betrayed - and that was the main problem.

And I have to say: I despised the Catfish monologue. It really rubbed me the wrong way. I sensed the amateurish nature of the film-makers in that moment, and the fact that they chose that as their title, etc. This was somehow supposed to capture what we had just seen, but in my opinion, that man's ramblings weren't all that deep or illuminating. I had a hard time following it, truth be told. But I think the boys leapt on that, like, "Oooh, that sounds deep - that sounds good - let's use that, it'll get people talking!" For me, that moment didn't work, especially since it was given all this added weight because it was the title of the film.

I certainly did walk around thinking about it afterwards, though. To be honest, I thought more about my own story, and what happened to me ... and Janna St. James' elaborate hoax (and, if you believe the rumors, St. James has been doing this for years - and some think she is responsible for breaking up Dan Fogleberg's marriage - or at least helping to hasten the end of it) ... and I gotta say, I was thinking: "Someone should make a documentary about this topic." I am not sure that Catfish is it.

Sorry for the ramble, still processing it.

Great discussion Jason, Steven, et al.

DavidEhrenstein said...

"My heart ached for this woman who seemed relatively harmless - especially seeing the struggles of her current-day life. Good God. Her words that all of these different people she created were "fragments of myself" was moving to me."

SUCKER!!!!!

YOUR A COMPLETE DUPE!!!!!

Why did you buy this steaming pile? Because your "heart ached."

Listen, dear, I've got a bridge in Brookly you may be interested in purchasing.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Good lord, David.

Jason Bellamy said...

I want to go back and respond in a bit more depth to Sheila's comments when I have more time, but while I've got a second here ...

David: First, I'm assuming you meant "sucker" in a playful way and not in a "I think you're stupid" way. Because if it's the latter, well, can we please raise the level of civility here?

But, second, honest question:

Why are you so sure this is all fabrication (and by "all fabrication" I mean that everyone in this film is an actor)? Is it a gut feeling, or is there some additional evidence to support your certainty?

I've already stated how much I suspect is real and dramatized, and that it doesn't much matter to me if Catfish is real or not in terms of the impact the film had/has on me. (The things it made me think about I'll still find interesting, even if tomorrow it's revealed to be a sham. I'll just think less fondly of the filmmakers, that's all.) So I'm not trying to defend the film in asking you this question. Because, truly, I don't much care one way or the other.

I haven't done any research, but from Twitter and RSS alone I know that several articles -- and from the sounds of it a Dateline episode -- have seemed to support (or at least "buy") the truth of all this. I don't mean to imply that those reports must be accurate (maybe they're being conned, too). What I want to know is if you have any evidence this film is false other than your gut reaction to it? Because if it's just your gut reaction, well, your tone is pretty extreme and certain, even if it's playful. I'm interested to hear if there's something more behind it.

DavidEhrenstein said...

To bein with the entire premise is mindless trivia. The paintings by the "daughter" that so facinate Nev are nothing of interest. Likewise what "Megan" has to say.

The real tip off was the trip to the farm where "Megan" is supposed to be but of course isn't. The whole set-up was purest Texas Chainsaw Massacre -- withoputLeatherface of course. Nothing documentary about it. Later we have the soft soap wha thte "real" woman and her "husband" and the "twins"

A question: How do we know there are twins?

Yeah, right.

The entire project is meant to appeal to the emotionally feeble-minded, ready to buy any story because it "moved" them.

Catfish is NOT a documentary in any way shape or form.

And when I say stupid, I mean it.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Now read THIS

Catfish is clearly more of the same.

Jason Bellamy said...

1) And when I say stupid, I mean it.

OK. Well, one thing I've always appreciated at this blog is that we never insult people but instead debate the issues. So, as the notice above the comments box on my site has always said, please be civil, or go elsewhere.

2) I'm not sure I follow how the paintings being "nothing of interest" exposes this film as false. And you lost me on your note about the twins. But from the sounds of it, the answer to my question about whether you have any evidence beyond your own opinion is "no."

DavidEhrenstein said...

I could say the same of you but that would be too easy.

I've been writing about film since 1965 and seen a ton. Especially documentaries. Jean Rouch is a god, as is Chris Marker. And barbet Schroeder ain't too far behind particularly with Terror's Advocate in which he talks with the real Carlos -- who's so much in cinematic news of late.

As for Catfish, were it possible to dissect it scene by scene on line and show what a piece of rancid bologna it is I'd be happy to do so. That not being possible, perhaps it would be best to try another route and question its admirers as to what they found so interesting about it.

Jason Bellamy said...

I could say the same of you but that would be too easy.

David: Now it's as if you haven't read my review or these comments. So if somehow this hasn't been clear, let me try to fix that:

1) I fully admit I have no idea whatsoever whether this is real or not. (I don't think I've even slightly implied otherwise.) It might be all real. It might be entirely false. It might be somewhere in between. It absolutely is one of the three, and I don't know which. What I've described above is my interpretation. That leads me here ...

2) The reason I asked you if you had other evidence is because you felt so certain about your interpretation that you felt it necessary to call anyone who disagreed with you "stupid." Your comments have left no room for the possibility that your interpretation is incorrect. When I asked you if you had other evidence, I told you exactly why I was asking.

3) You are perfectly entitled to your opinion and analysis. You might be entirely correct. All of this film might be false and everyone who believes that a sliver of it is "documentary" or "real" or "truth" might be "stupid" (including, of course, me). Of course, it's also possible -- so far as I can tell -- that you're wrong. Though from the sounds of it you disagree with that possibility.

4) Regardless of whether your interpretation of Catfish is correct, I know I'm correct about at least one thing in this exchange: I don't want debates at this blog in which someone is called "stupid" for having a different analysis.

That not being possible, perhaps it would be best to try another route and question its admirers as to what they found so interesting about it.

Well, first of all, I think it is possible for you to make arguments about why you think the film is entirely false. I suspect it's harder to make arguments that prove the film is entirely false, but you're welcome to do so, citing evidence from this film.

As for what its admirers found interesting: for that, I direct you to my review, and several of the comments that I've left here already.

Sheila O'Malley said...

As I mentioned in my comment, I didn't get the feeling it was a real event at all. It felt orchestrated (except for the two moments that stuck me as particularly real, which I also mentioned). My response to it, granted, had much to do with my own experience in this particular realm - I was dying to see it from the get-go because of that. I even joked with my friends who knew my story, "What if it's the same lady???"

I went back and looked over the comments again, and saw Steven's comment about the Return to Sender moment with the mailbox - that was another moment which felt a bit too good to be true.

I very much like talking about it (obviously)! But the whole time I was watching, I was thinking about all of these other famous Internet hoaxes (the Kaycee Nicole one comes to mind, along with Janna St. James) which would make a far more interesting story. I remember the Metafilter thread when the Kaycee Nicole thing was revealed as a hoax. There are hundreds and hundreds of comments. People can't believe it is true, they can't get their minds around it - what was most interesting to me were the people who, even when the woman CONFESSED to having made it up, still staunchly held true to their belief that the Kaycee Nicole Experience was a "good one" because it showed the "goodness of the human spirit", or some such thing. It was FASCINATING to watch unfold. There were others who were bitter, and felt totally used - their good natures having been taken advantage of - but I was most interested in the ones who said, blatantly, "Okay, fine. It was a hoax. But I still believe." Now THAT'S a good story.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Maybe to you it is, Sheila, but not to me.

I saw Catfish relatively late in the game. All manner of column inches and blog posts had already been made indicating waht a unitque film it was. I found it wanting. Moreover I found it (I'm trying to keep the peace here Jason) dishonest.

The lynchpin of every con is the desire conman senses in the mark. In this caseit's dating plus the 'net.

So many of us over the years of the nets ascendancy have come to know people we have never met - and well may never meet. The question is how do we "know" them. All manner of marks have lost their shirts to get-rich-quick schemes. That of course is the easy part. Less easy to talk about are those whose heartstrings were plucked -- and thereby dragged into God Knows What manner of emotional infamy.

How many of us have encountered a film (and I'm speakign very generally here, not this one in particular for the moment) that was in every way mediocre but whose fans insist "Well I cried!" going on to imply that you're somehow less than human for not lettign those tear ducts flow.

Catfish is a rather sophisticated -- definitely "postmodern" -- form of this sort of speciaous tearjerker.
It's made very cear that we're supposed to believe it from the very presentation of our hero ("Such a nice young man" you can hear innumerable posters say) "friending" this little girl, then her older sister, then -- well you now the rest.

The gradual "revaltion" of "the truth" is accomplished dratically in a manner that goes right back to Wilkie Collins.

Actually he's too sophisticated. This is peenny-dreadful stuff, really.

I didn't buy it and was therefore deeply offended ( See? Two can play at the "offense" game)by those who were not.

The ineveitable response: "Well that's just your opinion. "

As Herman Melville says at the close of his masterpeice The Confidence-Man "Something further may follow of this masquerade."

Sheila O'Malley said...

David - did you read my comment at all? I said something else would be a good story, not the one that was actually told.

DavidEhrenstein said...

You said "I totally GET the impulse behind that trip, by the way - it's just that I think there is a far more interesting story to be told in this material."

And for me that story would involve fessing up to the fact that the whole thing was faked.

You mention Capturing the Friedmans. That was a documentary on which some of the Catfish crew were involved. The story it deals with was verifiably real. But the way the film treated it leaves a lot to be desired. This has to do with the fact that so much material was presented for effect -- Big Moments where we're clearly meant to say "Ooooo!"

Not cricket.

Jason Bellamy said...

The inevitable response: "Well that's just your opinion."

But it isn't just your opinion. It was your opinion based on analysis of the film. That's the kind of stuff I like to see.

I still need to circle back to Sheila's reaction (I'll save that for tomorrow), but two quick thoughts to wrap up the night for me ...

* How many of us have encountered a film ... that was in every way mediocre but whose fans insist "Well I cried!"

1) True. This happens all the time. I think Eastwood's made a living on this reaction. (Well, and the fact that he's such a swell guy that people seem to want to avoid insulting anything he's involved with at all costs.) And I think if anyone said that this is a great film simply because it inspires tears (in some), that would be a very weak argument. But ...

2) Let's make it clear that no one in this comments thread has done that. Going back to Sheila's comments from this afternoon, she has a lot of critical things to say about the film. She also says her heart ached for the women. (Much different than saying the film is great because her heart ached.) Well, my heart ached for that woman too. And it would ache for her if you told me that this is all fiction and she's an actress and that woman is just a character.

I don't like the film because it makes my heart ache for the woman. And the movie doesn't have to be real for the emotions it inspires to be true. At least that's my take.

Going back and repeating things I've said before: If the movie is all a con -- everything from start to finish -- then it's a very curious thing. What are they indicating about their confidence in their ability as artists if they feel the need to dupe the audience in order to make the story of a woman doing basically the same thing resonate? Or at some point will they call this all performance art or something?

While I was interested in where Catfish ended up, part of me still wishes it would have remained a straight forward online love story, because it captures so well how online relationships work. But now I'm rambling.

Thanks for the comments, all, and for working through a rough patch there. More from me tomorrow.

Jason Bellamy said...

OK, I couldn't get my comment in quickly enough. The conversation has moved on. So I'll close with this question ...

David: I'm not disagreeing with your assessment of Friedmans or Catfish in terms of this statement, but ...

This has to do with the fact that so much material was presented for effect -- Big Moments where we're clearly meant to say "Ooooo!"

Don't the vast majority of documentaries present material for effect?

DavidEhrenstein said...

Way back in 1988 I interviewed Errol Morris for The Thin Blue Line for the Los Angles Herald-Examiner. The film had been lavishly priased. I found it interesting but a with a lot of unanswered questions to it. Plus that Philip Glass score (really don't like him.) Anyhoo I had a sit down with Morris. He was telling me a story about the making of the film, which of course involved his questioning of "the truth" as administered by the courts. He had obvioulsy told this story many times beforer and was doing it in a manner designed with a "payoff" line to which I was suppsoed to respond with a big "Oooo" and "Ahhh." When this wasn't forthcoming his whole mood changed. His face, formerly ultra-friendly, suddenly darkened. I asked him more questions abotu the case and where before he'd had answers he was now evasive -- shifting in his seat uncomfrotably. He quickly declared the interview over.

IOW, I'm used to documentary con-men.

Jason Bellamy said...

OK. So now I finally have time to loop back to some of Sheila's comments ...

It was that sense of horrible discovery that I was missing in the film. The two scenes that rang "truest" for me was when they found out she had posted a song that was a cover from someone else on Youtube - and the other one was when Nev read out loud the "juicy" texts he had been sending this fictional girl. That seemed true.

I was in a better position than you were because I went into Catfish knowing absolutely nothing except that there was some surprise. So for me there was quite a bit of mystery about where the film would go. Early on in these comments, Steven Santos said he felt it was obvious where the film was heading. I have no doubt that he correctly predicted the film's final destination. But, as I've suggested already, knowing nothing, when Nev peeked into those garage windows I thought it was plausible he'd be attacked by that chick in The Ring and the film would get all Blair Witch-y. So for me it was a surprise where the film ends up; not because things weren't what they seemed to be (I expected that), but because upon learning that it was all false the filmmakers made an effort to bond with this person and understand what motivated her actions, which I didn't expect. So for me the film was full of discovery. I had no expectations to allow me to be let down.

As for the other scenes you mention, the "YouTube" one is terrific on multiple levels. First, it kills me that it took these guys to realize that basic social media like YouTube can be used to create a thrilling detective procedural. Hollywood screenwriters should be ashamed for not getting there first. Second, the spirit of the scene is just right: there's a "gotcha" element early, but that quickly shifts to, "What would possess someone to do something like this when they can be so easily caught?" And that's a question that's interesting regardless of how factual this movie is or isn't.

As for the scene where Nev reads the texts: I love it. It begins with them noting that he's wearing his retainer. And when I saw that I felt like, "OK, this is all bullshit. Because even if this is mostly real, leaving in your retainer is a kind of calculated nonchalance that reeks of bullshit." And yet by the end of the scene I thought: well, if all of that was staged, this Nev dude deserves a Best Actor nomination. Because no matter whether what we're seeing is actually real, it's packed with all the emotions of what I think that scene would look like if it were real; and that's all that really matters here.

Jason Bellamy said...

And perhaps Nev didn't feel betrayed - and that was the main problem.

Yeah, that's why I suspect that probably even from the "beginning" -- or what passes for the beginning in terms of the film -- these guys knew that there was no way this Michigan family could be real, and they wanted to see how far it could go. I suspect that Nev intentionally pretended to be in love, and he essentially entrapped the woman by leading her along.

Still, this woman is an example of how social media allows us to create these other worlds, not to fool other people so much as ourselves. To that degree, I wish this woman's "real" life hadn't been so extremely tragic, because it overshadows the everyday-ness of what this film is exploring -- it makes it seem like it's a freak show about one person rather than a symbol for the kind of online reinvention that goes on all the time. Too many casual viewers, I suspect, will walk away thinking, "That lady is fucked up," instead of questioning how her story fits into their lives.

Was Nev really heartbroken? I doubt it. And even if the romance is real, I suspect he wouldn't be truly heartbroken because from the beginning he notes all the reasons it isn't likely to work out. And there's a camera always there. At most, he has a bit of hope that somehow it might work out, but I think he really thinks it's all just kind of interesting.

This continues to be a thought-provoking film for me. I wish I could say that about more 2010 films, but I can't.

Thanks again for the discussion. Sorry it's taken me so long to get back to this.

DavidEhrenstein said...

"So for me it was a surprise where the film ends up; not because things weren't what they seemed to be (I expected that), but because upon learning that it was all false the filmmakers made an effort to bond with this person and understand what motivated her actions, which I didn't expect."

Why didn't you expect it? Instead of oing all Blair Witch Project it went all Oprah.

Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

DavidEhrenstein said...

"these guys knew that there was no way this Michigan family could be real, and they wanted to see how far it could go. I suspect that Nev intentionally pretended to be in love, and he essentially entrapped the woman by leading her along."

You had it at "there was no way this Michigan family could be real."

Sheila O'Malley said...

Jason - // "What would possess someone to do something like this when they can be so easily caught?" //

Right, that's a very interesting question. It speaks to the dreamspace people are often in when they are online - and to some degree, everyone who has some kind of "presence" online, and now a lot of us do, has created a persona. This is who I am in public. Even the most confessional diary-like blog is a public persona in some way. Some of this may be unconscious. And people are gullible. It's challenging to constantly remind oneself, "What I see here may be a total fabrication."

Again, I go back in my mind to the Kaycee Nicole hoax, where there were clues very early on that there WAS no Kaycee Nicole - even though many people had spoken to "someone' on the phone. It was when she "died", and her masses of followers wanted to send flowers to a funeral home or maybe even show up at the wake, that the whole thing began to unravel. But there were clues from the beginning (if you were not in the dreamspace of 'This is real", that is.)

I think that, for me, was what was missing in the film. A real sense of the dreamspace that people go into when they WANT to believe something. It's a very human thing, which is why so many people scoff at it.

But that Youtube scene came closest.

DavidEhrenstein said...

A film about "the dreamspace that people go into when they WANT to believe something" would be most welcome as it would have political implicationsas well as "personal" ones.

Perhaps a film of Meville's "The Confidence-Man."

Sadly its odeal star, W.C. Fields, is no longer with us.

ephemerina said...

Hi, I just have a little bit to add here, as a dupe, not as a cinema academic.

I've got my own issues with Catfish, many of them the same as Sheila's (your story is some fucked up shit, Sheila, my heart aches, kudos for coming to terms with it), and Jason, I very much appreciate your take on the burgeoning love story, how easy it is to fall sometimes.

I believe the filming was begun as a kind of goof, then maybe kept up with an eye toward having footage for the wedding video should Nev and Megan hit it off. It goes off the rails once they twig it's a scam, I too feel at that point they simply wanted to capitalize on what was bound to be a sensational situation. But hey, c'mon, that's always what happens when duplicity is exposed - life goes off the rails, and how it's dealt with depends on the individuals involved.

However, just because a story is manipulated doesn't mean that there's not truth at its core. The scam perpetuated on me, for instance - the way it was reported, the whole intervention, was so staged and manipulated, in my mind primarily to suit my friend's ego. In his mind, though, I'm sure his intentions were as pure as he could make them. Still, I don't think even he could say he didn't get overly dramatic with the whole thing, he is a writer after all. That said, I can't say for sure that I wouldn't have done the same thing if my friends had involved me.

In any case, I'm happy enough that this movie warrants discussion at all - the more this type of internet fraud is understood, the easier it will be to prosecute in a court of law.


PS Dave, you might want to count to ten thousand before you post. Plus, tooting your own horn displays a horrific lack of modesty and does not endear you to whatever community you're participating in. (and ease up on the Melville references - twice in a four-day period is a bit excessive. we heard you the first time.) But perhaps you don't care, in fact I'm sure of it. You go, girl!