Catfish appeared in theaters more than a month ago now, sporting the tagline “Don’t let anyone tell you what it is,” and riding a wave of Sundance hype that had audiences guessing at the very nature of the film. Was it the newest entry in the faux-documentary “found footage” thriller genre, following in the footsteps of The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield? Or was it something even darker; a real documentary that takes some unnerving twists?
The trailer effectively sets up the story’s central conceit: New Yorker and dance photographer Nev Schulman develops a friendship, including a budding relationship, with several members of a Michigan-based family after meeting them over the internet. And how timely that this movie saw its theatrical release as anticipation was building for that other social network themed film. Both films do address something that has been in the headlines more than ever over the past few months: the way these social networking sites betray our privacy, especially in light of the way many users have been so trusting with their personal information and the details of their personal lives. Almost everyone I know has had their lives affected in some way because of information that gets publicly posted on these sites; I’ve seen relationships crumble apart as a result. On its lowest level, it’s a breeding ground for the types of personalities that are still stuck in junior high school drama-queen mode, forever trying to stir the pot of controversy with friends of friends and very loose acquaintances, while able to hide behind a computer screen in varying degrees of anonymity, often not having to take much responsibility for their actions. And more recently, these social networking sites have come under attack for the ways that they themselves are trafficking in personal information or allowing third-party apps to cull and distribute data from behind the curtain of online gaming programs. As a result of all of this, we’re starting to see the public’s perception of the internet begin to shift slightly.
Yet, often times people have it in their natures to be trusting and idealistic. It was well over 5 years ago when recent college graduates were finding pictures and contents of their MySpace profiles being referenced as part of the research and profiling for job interviews, and there were several stories about naive young adults not being hired for jobs, or even being fired by current employers, because of inappropriate behavior they were foolishly and brazenly sharing with the world. And yet not much changed as a result. In a world of ever-growing reality television and YouTube, today’s teenagers and 20-somethings seem to lack any kind of fourth wall. It’s like playing peek-a-boo with a baby; they think if they can’t see you then you can’t see them, while also being unrealistically overconfident that nothing can or will be used against them in a court of the workaday world.
It’s really no surprise then, that the trailers for Catfish struck such a chord with audiences. Because in this day and age, where there is so little privacy and therefore such a reduction in the genuinely personal, horror has lost its footing. No one’s scared of anything anymore because we’ve now seen it all before. And after the rash of torture porn over the last several years, audiences have become numbed and thickened to in-your-face violence. There’s no envelope there to push anymore, no way to pick at the boundaries of a society that is used to having cameras film them constantly, who in fact court the experience and the celebrity that comes along with it, even with that celebrity is for being a dysfunctional, addictive, and having the brain capacity of a chunk of wood. We’re now rewarding people for their laziness, lack of ambition and effort, and their overall void of intelligence. Classlessness is the new calling card of the power elite. And the internet… that’s the one thing people still put their implicit trust in; it’s a warm safety blanket, a slice of pizza, a bowl of ice cream, and a side of mac & cheese all rolled into one. Just as smokers disregard the surgeon general’s warning on every pack of cigarettes, users of social networking sites put so much blind trust in the positives of how it brings people together and facilitates communication that they’re forever blinding themselves to the darker possibilities. All of which is to say that the trailer for Catfish really plugs into the still-untapped possibilities of what remains the greatest source of horror material in this current age; it captures the imagination and where those possibilities might lead, and does so quite brilliantly.
First let me say that the way the film itself employs the internet is brilliant as well, although it may be somewhat unintended and the result of no-budget documentary filmmaking. Not only do we see Facebook, IM’s, and the proliferation of texting, but Joost and Schulman use things like Google maps and 3D web cameras to set geography, locations, and travel patterns. It’s likely simply done out of ease and need, but it’s also very much in keeping with the way so much of our world is now defined and determined by the internet. We’re increasingly crossing that line where real life seems to be a function of the mind’s eye via computer and technology instead of the other way around.
And what makes the film so effective is Catfish‘s everyman protagonist Nev Schulman, completely at ease, trusting, and confident in technology and in people’s assumed best intentions. And of course, without giving anything away, once Nev and company descend on the Michigan addresses of their internet friends in a surprise visit, they’re in for a very rude awakening. All of this makes the film a must-see; it’s one of the most socially relevant films to hit theatres this year, and the commitment displayed to following through on the telling of this evolving story makes for fly-on-the-wall fascinating drama. I do have a few more things to say about the film that are spoiler-laden, so I’m going to get to that after the rating. If you think you want to see the film and haven’t seen it yet, then stop reading and just go and see it. For those who have seen it or don’t care about being spoiled, continue reading after the rating.
SPOILERS: I’m going to be as obtuse as I can here and not give everything away, but I can’t really includes this in a normal review, because there’s no way to give the film and the filmmakers’ their due without talking about why and how it succeeds in some way. First of all, this is not The Blair Witch Project. This is a genuine documentary. And because you’re able to see photos and clips on the internet of the filmmakers promoting their movie, you know that no one dies and this doesn’t turn into a gothic slasher film or something along those lines. Once Nev, Henry, and Ariel meet the family they’ve been communicating with, they find a reality stranger than fiction. And that’s where the film takes its biggest turn, about half-way through. It stops being a film about the mystery of who these people might or might not be, and starts being a documentary about who these people really are. In fact, that’s where the title of the film comes from, in a clever flourish.
Now, despite everything, the filmmakers have still been attacked by audiences for making a faux-documentary. Even Morgan Spurlock, director and star of Super Size Me and executive producer and star of the show 30 Days, congratulated the directors for making what he considered to be “the best fake documentary of all time.” But if you watch the film with a slightly less cynical eye, it’s quite obvious that the family in Michigan are not actors playing parts. And while their willingness to continue with the filming once they’ve been exposed may seem disingenuous to some; I would argue that the stark reality is the polar opposite, and that is what makes Catfish so brilliant. At this point, the film becomes an exploration of personality types in this technology-heavy world that we live in, and the odd way that something seemingly employed for its anonymity may actually be the safety blanket that allows a voice to begin to try to express itself. But like any therapy, if this is a voice that ultimately needs to speak, it’s not necessarily going to turn the cameras away when they show up, even when that means suffering the shame and humiliation of being caught in the act. And there are other evidences that abound, how certain people react in genuine confusion in a way that can not really be acted. To try to write or act the confusion we see on camera from one person in particular would have resulted in something more streamlined and on the nose. But the confusion is itself confusing is such a way that you really have to take a close look to peer through it for comprehension; the hidden truth behind it makes sense in a way that only half-understood reality can. And yet another person, the one who provides the film’s title, seems to have knowledge of what’s been going on far beyond what anyone assumes; seems, in fact, to have a perfectly clear understanding and acceptance of everything. There’s both a sadness to it and a painful resolve that belies it, evidence of a real love that is quite touching and beautiful.
And in the end, Nev remains a trusting, open, and friendly person. Some jaded audience members may scoff at this as being unrealistic and use it to claim fiction. But again, truth is often stranger than fiction. What we’re seeing are personality types and ideologies at work. A person who sees the world in a certain way, who is determined to always see the best in people, is usually going to try to maintain that point-of-view. For an idealist, that may mean maintaining an idealistic frame of mind even when it requires a reinterpretation of the world to include new realities; even if such mental cartwheels goes counter to the cold logic a pessimist would employ. And again, that’s part of what makes Catfish such a beautiful humanizing story. It’s finally about the human spirit overcoming technology, and the willingness of one person to be there for someone else, even through difficulty and discomfort. And isn’t that what we all strive for in the end? To be appreciated and to know that we’re not alone in the world? The internet, for all of its usefulness in bringing people together, on a certain level remains a divisive tool that ultimately keeps people apart. Catfish is what happens when you put the notebook down and venture out past the safety of your screen saver, and venture forth to take the risk of reconnecting with the uncertainties of human reality. If we don’t do it sooner, we’ll end up doing it later when we’re all just a bunch of screaming, lonely voices starving for real connection and interaction.