by Richard von Busack
The new documentary Catfish does for social networking what 1999’s Blair Witch Project did for hand-held film. In Blair, a fictional group of filmmakers was done for by the unseen. Heather and her friends didn’t realize that their video camera, like that special pistol superspy Matt Helm used to wield, was a weapon that fired in both directions.
Catfish’s enigmatic title, so much like a password, disguises a less-said-the-better true story. A skinny 20ish young New Yorker called Nev (pronounced “Neev”) Schulman, his brother, Ariel (called Rel), and their pal Henry Joost are filmmakers, and they’ve been filming each other since time immemorial.
Cruising around Facebook, Nev becomes aware of the paintings of a little girl deep in the Midwest. Like the Maria Olmstead of My Kid Could Paint That, Abby work is fetching local prices of up to $7,000. Through Abby’s Friends List, Nev gets in touch with the painter’s sister, Megan, and her mom, Angela. It soon becomes clear, however, that Megan is more Nev’s idea of a good time.
Long, long emails pass between Megan and Nev, who becomes fixated not just on Megan’s blonde beauty but also on her earthiness—her work with horses and poultry. Anyone these days who isn’t daydreaming about a farm isn’t really daydreaming. “Did you know a chicken makes an egg every day?” asks the infatuated Nev, despite his buddies’ warning that Megan is most likely a dude, posing as a girl. But her voice is so seductive! And when she’s not foaling ponies, she’s singing like an angel on the guitar! “Is there nothing you can’t do?” Nev writes her.
It’s then that these three young men discover a sure warning sign of bad character: plagiarism. Determined to solve the mystery, the three drive to its source: a small town in Michigan, in the same area where Anatomy of a Murder took place. At the end of the road, they discover the real story.
Catfish is a cautionary tale, but is it anything more? Like Exit Through the Gift Shop and I’m Still Here, it deals with the problem of the realer-than-real illusion imparted by documentaries and social networking. The concept is that everything is being exposed, when in fact nothing could be more selective than what the filmmakers decide to expose. Googling Earth, as the team does, can’t tell them what they need to know. Nev and his pals aren’t the first to mistake the map for the terrain.
Because the role of documentary filmmaker is easy for even a child to assume, trusting what we see in the guise of documentary becomes more difficult. There are so many pseudo-docs that there’s even a film festival in Portland made to handle them, held every April 1. You could look it up on the Internet—that proves it exists.
I liked, though, how Catfish can be compared to the epistolary novel, which the dreaded Nicholas Sparks brought back to such success. Catfish has a different take on love letters and what might lurking behind them. It’s almost nasty, the idea of privileged city filmmakers exposing this small-town Megan. But what sounds like a practical joke boomerangs; the results are closer to the punch line in a Raymond Carver story than in a Hitchcock film.
I imagine there’ll be those who think Catfish is hyped and lacking in payoff. I should warn you, there won’t be blood. It’s not a humorous film, any more than it is violent, and the middle starts to drag as the emails fly back and forth.
But the narrow field of vision and depth in portable cameras creates some haunting images: the Michigan town, under flat blue skies, is as empty as the plaza in a de Chirico painting. The sequence of the team exploring a deserted farmhouse, by the green light of night vision at 3am, creates stomach-turning tension. The payoff is diabolically plausible and definitely tragic: there’s true horror in such a pitiful need for recognition. And the culture of fame and the age of digital film is creating such horror stories by the dozen every day.