Reality’s on the line in controversial ‘Catfish’
There’s a lot I can’t tell you about “Catfish,’’ the entertaining but highly problematic documentary (quotes optional) that has been causing raptures and squabbles ever since it debuted at Sundance in January. A story of three young New York filmmakers discovering a social-media mystery and pursuing it to the ends of the earth — all right, Michigan — it seems to play as vastly different movies depending on who’s looking at it.
To 20-somethings for whom Facebook is an extension of their root-file personalities, it’s a chilling, suspenseful ghost story; to their parents, it’s a cautionary tale. To urban hipsters, it’s a warning about flyover-country freaks; to Middle Americans, a joke about naive urban hipsters. To the sympathetic, it’s a tragedy of loneliness. To the doubters, it’s an obnoxious fraud.
What’s clear is that filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman — as well as Ariel’s brother Nev, a professional photographer who’s the film’s de facto star — are in way over their heads. “Catfish’’ documents Nev’s growing online friendship over the course of several months with a Midwestern family, the Pierces, whose 8-year-old daughter, Abby, sends him a painting based on one of his photographs. She’s clearly a prodigy, and as the photos and artwork flow back and forth, Nev becomes close with Abby’s mom, Angela, her dad, Vince — the whole extended clan. When he gets to know Abby’s grown half-sister, an amateur singer and model named Megan, the movie becomes a long-distance romance charged with delight and young lust.
Of course, Nev and Megan don’t really know each other. All of the Schulman/Pierce communication takes place in pixel-space against a whirring digital scrim of Facebook/texting/IM. Live phone calls are the only proof of actual existence. Because of that, the courtship is both virginal and hot: The two can’t keep their virtual hands off each other. Nev, a toothy young charmer, is so smitten with Megan that he Photoshops their images together — the 21st-century version of carving initials in a tree.
And then — but I can say no more, other than to note that what may come as a jaw-dropping shock to some viewers will be no surprise to others. After a certain point, “Catfish’’ is structured as a suspense thriller, and its sense of unease is punctuated by eerie moments of revelation but also some of the goggle-eyed fear of rural America that made “The Blair Witch Project’’ unintentionally comic.
What keeps you watching is the filmmakers’ flair for dramatizing their story entirely within the visual signifiers of Screenworld. When Nev, Ariel, and Henry take a plane trip, we follow their progress via
As for the Pierce family — but I can say no more. A number of observers have raised the possibility that everything in “Catfish’’ is a hoax, a put-on engineered by smug, ambitious young con artists. It’s possible, but, honestly, I don’t think the filmmakers deserve that much credit. I do think that once they saw what was happening they realized they had a hell of a movie on their hands and began making that movie rather than recording reality.
Squint right, and you can feel them fictionalizing the story as they experience it, shaping the shots, thinking ahead to how they’ll cut sequences for goosebumps or pathos or laughs. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn they reshot bits that didn’t work out satisfactorily, staged scenes involving themselves, and rearranged chronology to suit the “narrative.’’ Hindsight and editing software are wonderful things, but they can obscure the truth of a matter as often as they reveal it.
As engrossing as “Catfish’’ is, then, it feels wholly disingenuous — not life observed but life tidied up and told. It may be that the filmmakers are too young to see the difference between documentary and fiction; it may be that for them there is no difference. Almost in spite of itself, “Catfish’’ raises profound issues about identity and community and belonging — about how much we see of people in the digital era without seeing them at all — yet it’s too superficial to truly engage those issues. When Nev callowly reads his flirty texts with Megan out loud for the camera, we cringe not for her — whoever she is — but for him.
Still, “Catfish’’ demands to be seen, if only for the excellent arguments you’ll have about it on the drive home. And if it is real, as I suspect much of it is, it’s impossible to ignore the still, small, enigmatic Wizard of Oz at its very center — a figure desperately begging the filmmakers and us to pay attention to the person behind the curtain.