Catfish -Facebook vs. Reality

Like other reviewers of Catfish, I have the problem of talking about this film without revealing spoilers. While I won’t get too specific, it’s hard to discuss this movie without giving away, at least in a general way, the direction it moves in. Yet I think this problem has been exaggerated, as it’s not really a suspense film as much as a psychological and cultural study. You could know all of the main conclusions up front and still enjoy it.

Catfish is a documentary by New Yorkers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman that chronicles a series of events involving Ariel’s brother Nev, who corresponds with a strange family in rural Michigan. Nev is first contacted by the youngest member of the family, an 8 year old girl named Abby, who is apparently a child prodigy who paints. Later, Nev starts chatting with Abby’s older sister Megan, and the two begin an online romance. Soon, however, Nev becomes suspicious about the whole family and the whole crew descends on the family’s home in Michigan to find out the truth.

Reading the reviews, both professional and by customers, is almost as interesting as the film itself. While Catfish has won it’s share of praise, it’s also provoked quite a bit of hostility, for reasons that range from reverse class snobbery to a misunderstanding about what the film is supposed to be. Reading some of the reviews on Netflix, for example, it becomes clear that many people thought this was going to be a suspense, or even a horror film. There’s one scene where this is hinted at, when the film crew discovers the family’s farm late at night and there’s a Blair Witch Project-like atmosphere. But that really has nothing to do with the movie as a whole. I’m not familiar with the original marketing of this film, and some have charged that the filmmakers deliberately tried to trick people into believing it was going to be a horror movie. If this is true, then this was certainly a poor decision, but it still doesn’t detract from the actual film. When reading customer reviews, you also have to keep in mind that the average modern moviegoer isn’t a fan of documentaries.

Another criticism that has been leveled against Catfish is that it’s fake. This is something I obviously can’t verify one way or the other, but strangely enough, it makes no real difference, as the whole point of the film is to make us think about “what is real?” on social networks like Facebook. To me, everything seemed real and if the directors faked it, they did a good job of it.

It really seems doubtful to me that Catfish was staged or faked in any substantial way (all documentaries use a certain amount of staging, just like reality TV, to create a certain atmosphere and reaction in the audience, but that’s not the same as saying the main theme was made up. Nev, the young man who begins corresponding with, first a young girl who paints, and then her mother and sister, begins to have doubts about the family’s truthfulness quite early on. Unlike what some critics have said, it wasn’t presented as though it was supposed to be a major twist late in the film. So the suspense factor, while present, isn’t really the point here at all. It’s more of a psychological study of how people in the modern age communicate, and the impact certain online actions can have on others.

While the customer reviewers who hated Catfish were mainly disappointed that the Michigan family didn’t turn out to be something out of Deliverance, or perhaps The Hills Have Eyes, the professional critics turned on it in another, more interesting way. The average high profile movie reviewer is, almost by definition, well educated, affluent and urban. They also tend to be very eager to portray themselves as liberal, politically correct and anti-elitist. So many of these reviewers were made distinctly uncomfortable by the interaction between the filmmakers, who appear to represent the educated elite of Manhattan, and a poor middle America family. To make matters worse, there are two severely handicapped children in the house, so one could easily read a “Haves vs. Have-nots” subtext into this film if one were so inclined.

The reviewers who took this track were quite vehement in condemning the insensitivity of the filmmakers, and seemed strangely eager to embrace a member of the family who displays clearly delusional-bordering-on- psychotic tendencies. Yet the film itself maintains an admirable equilibrium, and helps to bring about an unlikely conclusion where no one is demonized and everyone comes clean. The fact is, class and geographic distinctions play a relatively minor role (if any) in Catfish, which is really about truth and identity in the digital age.

If you’re philosophically inclined, you could even look at Catfish as a study in topics as deep as the meanings of truth and identity in general, not just online. I highly recommend Catfish to anyone who wants to look at some of the cultural consequences of Facebook and other modern forms of communication.

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