Catfish and Facebook

Written by  //  November 25, 2010  //  Media & Popular Culture  //  3 Comments

Catfish (2010)

Dir. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

‘Facebook realism’ surely ought to be seriously considered as a sub-genre now, at least. It may have spiritual predecessors in cyberspace romance movies like You’ve got mail and, closer home, the clunky and hammy Mujhse Dosti Karoge (‘Will you add me as friend?’), but Catfish funnels all these genre movies through distinctly American forms like the mumblecore movies, informal home videos and amateur films. It’s a product of the carefully cultivated artlessness that determines the ambitions of a batch of filmmakers who are, nonetheless, extremely aware of the references they are invoking and the artifice they are constructing; a generation that has often been dubbed as a post-Cassavetes or ‘slackavetes’ generation. And these movies keep festivals like Sundance going. Catfish is also a Sundance movie and it is surfing additionally on the crest of the David Fincher movie on Facebook (The Social Network) that tries to uncover an emotional core to the person and the corporation that thrives on people wanting to befriend others over the internet. The reason I mention this is because Catfish claims to be a documentary. To me it seems a little too perfect and recherché as a finely written drama made by a couple of New York filmmakers with a strong emotional crunch that, paradoxically enough, in another format or context would’ve come across as tried and hackneyed. And there seems to be a debate about this too. Ultimately, it hardly matters if it’s true or not. If people identify with the narrative, get sufficiently sucked into it and are willing to suspend their disbelief half-way through, the job is done. Surely you didn’t fall for it when District 9 told you it was a documentary about aliens stranded in Johannesburg, did you?

For anybody who has had anything to do with social networking websites, the narrative of Catfish won’t come as a surprise at all. This film merely satisfies the demand of this club that includes more than 500 million people now, who want to watch and listen to weird stories about people getting foxed over the internet and also remind themselves of the dangers of emotional investment in the wildly anonymous prairies of the internet.

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost begin to film the growing friendship between an 8 year-old girl called Abby and their flatmate and Ariel’s brother Yaniv, a photographer. Apparently impressed by Yaniv’s photograph that appeared in a popular magazine, Abby starts to correspond with Yaniv and sends her paintings that she claims were done by her in imitation of his photographs. The paintings are quite beautiful and it seems like Abby’s extremely gifted. Being too young, however, most of her mails are handled by her mom, Susanne, who is encouraging of this relationship. They add each other as friends on Facebook and then Yaniv adds other members of Abby’s family including her mom and an attractive 19-year old half-sister called Megan Faccio. He speaks to Susanne several times over the phone. The pictures of Megan tagged on Facebook give us glimpses of Susanne too; also very attractive. Yaniv soon builds up a relationship with Megan over eight months, although they’ve never met, and even exchange really steamy messages. Megan also happens to be a particularly talented singer and songwriter and she keeps mailing mp3s to Yaniv. Addresses are given out and they spend time hovering over each other’s streets and houses on google earth. Megan and her family live out somewhere in rural Michigan.

When the guys receive an assignment out of town, close to where Abby lives, they decide to ask her, Megan and Susanne to come out and meet them. When this does not transpire they grow suspicious and start checking up on some of their correspondences. Then they decide to visit their house.

About half-way through and even before, you can guess what the nature of the ‘twist’ is. But when the film makes a tantalising suspense drama out of it, it is not unpleasant to stay with it and see it through. Thankfully, the film does not rely on the exposition to be the kernel of the film. One of the things to notice is how the dramatic and emotional sequences make the cocksure-but-well-meaning filmmakers look severely out of their depth. Here is high-drama and tragedy, but all we can do is film them like we’d film a fat guy falling or an impromptu Grizzly Bear street-performance. Then it also reminds us that this film serves as a morality tale. Susanne’s husband tells us how catfishes are supposed to remind us about mysterious things that keep us on our toes. Faceboook and the internet have been called several things before, but never a catfish; and that’s something too. As Zuckerberg hopes to add a new friend by the end of The Social Network, signalling a kind of emotional upheaval and coming-to-terms, these filmmakers also come away having added a few new ones as well. But now they know exactly what’s involved.

3 Comments on "Catfish and Facebook"

  1. Peter Konrad July 4, 2012 at 7:15 pm ·

    This is one awesome blog.Really thank you! Awesome.

  2. Bernard Prout July 5, 2012 at 10:14 am ·

    Thanks-a-mundo for the blog post.Really looking forward to read more. Really Great.

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