(No longer in theaters)
Andrew Jarecki, Marc Smerling, Henry Joost
Sep 17, 2010
How do I write about the marvelous Catfish without giving away too much of its bizarre trajectory? Very carefully. It’s a new-style narrative documentary that dramatizes the paradox of the Internet, which has made us all so much closer to one another yet created so many more ways for us to misrepresent ourselves. (It sets the table for the upcoming David Fincher–Aaron Sorkin Facebook drama, The Social Network.) For Catfish, directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost began shooting Schulman’s brother, a photographer named Nev, after an 8-year-old Michigan girl, Abby, contacted him via Facebook to ask if she could do a painting of a striking dance photo he’d just published. When it arrives, the painting is better than good; it captures the energy in the female dancer’s limbs, the sense of transcendence in her flight. The little girl, an Abigail Breslin type in photos, is a prodigy. Nev phones Abby’s mother, Angela, and then, as his list of Facebook friends from Abby’s circle grows, enters into an e-mail and phone relationship with her teenage half-sister, Megan, a ripely pretty blonde who says she longs for him day and night. Ariel Schulman and Joost follow the burgeoning romance avidly—which is, come to think of it, another upshot of modern technology. In an age when hi-def cameras are so affordable and you don’t have to pay for film, you can keep a nonstop video diary of just about anything. You never know where it will lead.
Obviously, Abby and Megan and their mother, Angela, are not exactly what they say they are, but what—and who—are they? When the trio—using Google Maps and a GPS—head off to rural Michigan in search of answers, Catfish develops a Blair Witch Project–like vibe. Maybe Facebook will claim three more victims! And here I must stop … except to say that the last two words of the end titles (they are “including Angela,” but you won’t know what they mean without the context) had me sobbing with joy. Although Catfish is opportunistic, even borderline exploitive, it gets at—by indirection, through the back door—the magic-carpet aspect of this scary new medium. Real people are so complicated and irreducible, you know?
If they’re real, that is. In the early scenes, Nev’s excitement over Megan seems naïve. He’s a good-looking guy—his nickname could be “Mr. Adorable”—and it’s hard to believe he’s spending months obsessed with someone thousands of miles away … unless, of course, he’s acting obsessed because it makes for a good movie. And that’s where I must throw up my hands, because I no longer fully trust my ability to tell real scenes from faked ones, especially in first-person narrative documentaries. Parts of Tarnation turned out to have been staged. Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop was likely a prank—albeit one with its own satiric truth. I’m Still Here: Well, who can tell what’s sincere in that Cloud Cuckoo Land? We’ve always had to watch documentaries with a skeptical eye, with an awareness that reality—even in supposedly fly-on-wall depictions—can be so easily manipulated. But these days, it’s more insidious. All documentary filmmakers must be viewed as potential scam artists. Sorry, Fred Wiseman: We card everyone.