Nov 17 2010

Catfish

One of the most natural and engaging documentaries I've seen. 3.5 out of 4

It is interesting that Catfish be released soon after The Social Network, as both films present some insightful portrayals of the Facebook generation.  While Social Network traced Facebook’s less-than humble beginnings, Catfish captures a real piece of the culture that followed soon after.

Given the film’s subject matter, it’s appropriate that Catfish is a documentary; Facebook, Google and YouTube are so prevalent in today’s culture that, when making a film about the internet and society, real life can speak for itself without the aid of a script.

When New York photographer Nev Schulman receives a painting of one of his published photographs from Abby, a young artist from Michigan, Nev begins a Facebook friendship with her and her family.  Nev’s brother Ariel, along with their friend Henry, decide to film Nev’s interactions with this family to see just how close two groups of people can get without physically seeing them.

Things go better than expected as Nev firmly establishes himself as new member of the family; he even starts a longdistance relationship with Meagan, Abby’s half-sister, that begins to get pretty serious.  However, it later becomes apparent that Megan, Abby and the rest of the family are not what they seem.

Catfish’s marketing campaign revolves around its final act, suggesting that something particularly shocking or grisly will be revealed.  Given that Catfish is a documentary and was not in the news prior to its release, I think its safe to assume that most people won’t expect what they would probably like to see: axe wielding murderers, family-oriented cannibalism and gimp-butlers run amuck in the Michigan country.  Without giving too much away, the ending isn’t so much a shocking change in direction, but a fitting conclusion that expands the nature of the film in a way that is plausible, but still unbelievable.

What lies at the center of Catfish doesn’t depend on a twist ending or a Bluetooth-endowed serial killer, but a real study of social connections within social networks.  How close can people really get at such distances?  Granted, Facebook displays the details of an individual’s likes and dislikes, favorite this and that’s, political and religious views, and, of course, the almighty relationship status.  Although social networking sites promote the more superficial elements of one’s identity, most people seem to forget that it’s the way in which these things converge, the context of such identifying pleasantries that makes a person.  Without that, it’s quite impossible to truly get to know someone, assuming that what they’ve put down is even true in the first place.

The direction by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost never looses focus on the influence of the Internet, and often incorporates it in the film as if it were another character or setting.  The camera often watches the computer and lets Facebook pages tell their own story, and we often feel as though we are at are own desks, checking our profiles, chatting with friends and Googling whatever comes to mind.  Few films have used the face of the Internet in such a manner, and it seems so appropriate that a film about the Internet relies on the Internet to tell some of it’s own story.

One of the real delights of Catfish is how the documentary was started on a whim; none of the men behind the camera, nor the one in front of it knew where this story was going to go.  The directors have no real agenda or no specific narrative; it’s all up to Nev and his digitally surrogate family.  Not only does the story unfold naturally, but the relationship between Ariel, Henry and Nev does not follow the traditional or professional etiquette between filmmaker and subject.  Rather, the film simply portrays three friends fascinated by a peculiar event, all of whom are curious to see where it will go; two of them just thought to get it on tape for the fun of it.  The chemistry between the three young men grants the film a natural realism that is particularly inviting, and keeps a film revolving around Facebook firmly rooted in the real world with real people.

As far as we can tell, we are at the apex of the Facebook & Co. culture, and it’s about time someone starts questioning what the culture is and what it means.  A tad pretentious and philosophical, yes, but that is where Catfish succeeds so well.  Instead of preaching from a soapbox made of tarnished modems, Catfish follows an ordinary, everyday individual who lies, like so many of us, in the heart of that culture, and effortlessly juxtaposes the nature and meaning of social connections on both sides of a screen.

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