I’ve been kind of watching in muted horror as this whole Catfish thing revealed itself. After many screening invites, I really should have gone and seen it for myself. Thanks to Kris Tapley for putting me out of my misery by telling me what the film was about. The marketing strategy was starting to piss me off. The opposite to what I thought would happen HAS happened: now I really want to see the movie. AO Scott writes something new about it that I hadn’t heard before. It’s a brilliant insight, I think. Most people want to see Catfish as a cautionary tale for those of us who use social networking in place of real human interaction. But Scott looked at the film, saw opportunist filmmakers capturing a real artist — this contains SPOILERS. So we’ll quote Scott after the jump.
I mention all of these precedents to give some of the flavor of ‚ÄúCatfish‚Äù without spoiling it outright. But be warned: There is a big, not entirely unsurprising twist that lies like a booby trap in the middle of the film, and the choice is either to reveal what happens or forgo a discussion of the movie‚Äôs logic and meaning. The directors and the distributors would obviously prefer the second option, but the expectation of discretion is a trap. So consider yourself warned. I‚Äôll try not to spell out too much, but neither am I willing to play along in a rigged game.
Anyway, the story goes like this: A few years ago Nev Shulman, the younger brother of one of the filmmakers, was befriended by a girl in Michigan named Abby, who seemed to be an artistic prodigy. She wanted permission to use one of Nev‚Äôs photographs as the basis of a painting, and in the course of their correspondence revealed that she was, at the age of 8, exhibiting and selling her work online and in galleries in her hometown. Nev‚Äôs fraternal friendship with Abby led to a warm rapport with her mother, Angela, and also to a blossoming cyberflirtation with Megan, the girl‚Äôs 19-year-old sister, who posted enticing profile pictures on her Facebook page.
Megan seemed to be falling in love with Nev, whom she had never met. They exchanged sexy text messages and talked on the telephone, and she posted songs that she had written and pictures of the horse farm she was about to buy. At various points in their courtship, and in his dealings with Angela, Nev experiences a qualm, and tries to persuade his brother and Mr. Joost to let him out of the movie. They bully and cajole and keep the cameras running, and Nev, seemingly the most guileless and perhaps for that reason the most decent person in ‚ÄúCatfish,‚Äù plays along in spite of his queasiness.
When the time comes to pay a visit to Michigan, he also shows himself to be much braver than Mr. Shulman or Mr. Joost, who turn panicky when their little investigation into the nature of reality turns strange. When the going gets weird, Hunter S. Thompson used to say, the weird turn pro, but these filmmakers never transcend their own amateurism. They turn what could have been a brilliant exploration of the hidden corners of contemporary reality into an opportunity for gawking and condescension. Look at these crazy folks out there in the sticks! Let‚Äôs go back to New York and edit the footage so our friends can see just how crazy they are!
But the object of the film‚Äôs patronizing, pitying gaze is also the person who saves it: Angela, a woman whose life is, at first glance, a web of self-delusions, compulsive deceptions and plain desperation. Her whispery, sincere, wide-eyed lies and evasions were met, at the crowded screening I attended, with derisive laughter punctuated by gasps of horror. Plain-looking and soft-spoken, she seemed to be either a clown or a monster.
She might be those things, but in spite of its own facile, faux-na√Øf manipulations, ‚ÄúCatfish‚Äù reveals her to be something else as well, namely an artist. Mr. Joost and Mr. Shulman, young and entitled filmmakers, assume that the sophistication is all on their side, but Angela‚Äôs mastery of the media of modern self-expression ‚Äî from painting to social media to her very being ‚Äî surpasses theirs in every way.
Some acknowledgment of this power comes in a conversation with her husband, who tells the story that gives the movie its title, but everything that is radical, disturbing and true about ‚ÄúCatfish‚Äù belongs to the fabulist at its center. Mr. Shulman and Mr. Joost will continue to enjoy the success and cachet of having made a pop culture conversation piece, which is a tribute to their good luck and nimble opportunism. But the dark genius of their film lies elsewhere, beyond the parameters of its slick intentions, in the wild social ether where nobody knows who anybody is.
This is one of his best reviews.