Ok, so I just went through three days at Comic-Con, and I'm near ready to drop the noggin on the keyboard, but my mind keep racing around about something that I need to get out. Luckily my fingers type fast enough that I can keep going in time.
So what is this all about? Ah yes, one of the current talks of the (sorta) independent movie scene: the documentary(?) Catfish. Some of you may have heard of it, possibly from trailers shown at cineplexes. I mention the 'sorta' before as it's released by Universal pictures (albeit not yet really wide as one might think, and it hasn't made the extraordinary Paranormal Activity numbers as a micro-budgeted movie so go figure). And I add the question mark there as there is some question- not least of which by good friend and fellow Creatively Stumped podcaster Matt- that the whole thing was staged, everybody was actors, and that the website the directors have, which primarily focuses on commercials, indicates they have the technical know-how and efficiency to pull this off. This, though it should be noted, despite the fact that it's their first feature film (co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the former has some jazz piece done more recently than Catfish, the latter a comedy short), and that in interviews, such as the one HERE, they say It's All True, and weren't thinking about it while making it.
I should note up front that the film is enormously absorbing as a tale of human connectivity in the modern world. This, I should also add, reveals misdirection (intentional or not) on the end of the studio with its ads and approach hyping up the surprise reveal of the two directors and Schulman's brother, Yanev, the main "character", going up to the farm house that they've tracked down where Yanev's facebook girlfriend Meg is supposedly at. I have to think this was purely marketing, or at the least that the filmmakers wanted to get the film sold best way they could even if that meant adding a "The Best Hitchcock Film Hitchcock Never Made" moniker on the front (and really, that's such an over-done kind of critical praise - and if they had to do that for any movie out now, why not Buried, another Sundance favorite?)
Perhaps there is something askew with my cognitive capabilities, or perhaps there is something about me that is easily deceivable if the material is emotionally resonant and true enough. But the way the film is presented, along with the interviews with the directors, give me the impression that it did all happen the way it did. There's the speculation (again, Matt) that it was acted and staged, and meant to look like a Doc. Maybe he, like I, should know this well; the both of us have worked in various capacities as camera-people, crew, and directors on a feature film, Zack and Michael, and Lines of Glory, a short film, both toying with the idea of the actors as "actors" and not playing themselves. What's tricky is how Catfish falls into another kind of category along the lines of the "fake"documentary that Joost refers to in the interview. Catfish may, to the doubters, be more in line with other movies that have come out this year: Exit Through the Gift Shop, where one doubts if Thierry Guetta even exists as an artist and is a hoax by the graffiti maker and jolly prankster Banksy, and I'm Still Here, the volatile tome of celebrity gone awry by Joaqun Phoenix and Casey Affleck.
At time of this blog going live, Banksy hasn't revealed either way (I can only imagine Banksy, ala Machete, saying "Banksy don't interview" and leaving the mystery, if there even is a mystery, at that), and Phoenix and Affleck, perhaps too soon, have shown their hand, ironically after so much time where most of the people going into seeing the film already *knew* that it wasn't for real. Maybe there's a whole new sub-category to be put in this year: the "Faux-Real" movie (to sort of borrow a movie title from a trailer done by my friend Fred Henry). In these terms, I'm Still Here is the least of the lot, having some amazing moments but flailing as a satire as it's not very funny, more of a "performance art" piece. Bansky's film is the most entertaining, maybe the one I look forward to most rewatching again and again on DVD, as it works as a kind of triumph-of-the-will (not to be confused with Hitler) story of art and ego and the process itself becoming a kind of too-good-to-not-be-true saga. But Catfish is a little trickier. So tricky that I have to go out on the limb I am going on and considering, if only on a first glance, that the only things "staged" are the graphics and some close-ups, which are done on most documentaries.
One could go on and on about what is actually "real" in any documentary really; certainly no two directors have challenged that methodology like Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, who take real people and situations and leap off into other plateaus. With Catfish it's a tale of human beings caught up in the realm of technology. As a personal aside I know this kind of thing first-hand as in the years, eons ago it seems before I met my wife, I had an internet-based relationship where I didn't even see a picture of my supposed girlfriend. Finally meeting it was a disappointment, though we still went out for two more years until I fully realized the situation that we really had nothing in common and I wasn't attracted to her. There wasn't a facade, except, perhaps, the one I put up for so long caring about this unnamed woman (perhaps if you are reading this you know who you are). As I can also relate to a specific moment in the film, writing out something by hand- as I did, ultimately, as a break-up letter- takes on a whole new significance.
But where was I? The film, right right. These filmmakers start innocently enough charting what's going on with Schulman's almost-all-smiles brother 'Nev', who takes a picture of two dancers in a dramatic pose and then a painter does a recreation of it and mails it to Nev. This strikes up a facebook friendship, and she seems amiable enough. Then Nev 'friends' daughters Abby and Megan, the latter of which Nev becomes a little more closer with, both on facebook and on the phone. They send message after message to one another, and Meg sends Nev some songs she sings. Abby is the one, supposedly, doing these paintings, and is something of a child prodigy (maybe not My Kid Could Paint That, but close enough). But then something strikes up Nev's curiosity - a song Megan sends, a cover of a 'horse' song Tennessee Stud, sounds a little too familiar. Turns out it's really just a song she got off of youtube. This after she received the compliments from him.
Something's not right in Denmark and, ultimately, after realizing so much adds up as bullshit (i.e. the gallery where Abby's paintings are being put up is really an empty warehouse, and Abby doesn't have any paintings online). Finally the Schulman brothers and Joost go off to Michigan to find the real details - that it's really (spoiler) one woman behind the whole shebang, Abby isn't a painter, and the woman, Angela, admits with some embarassment that, yes, it was mostly all lies, and that the various facebook profiles of OTHER people that Nev saw corresponding as sort of side-friends were also made-up or make-ups of other people. The pictures of Megan, as a kind of creative-artistic trick, are of a model from Vancouver.
Have I said too much? Maybe. And maybe not enough. The big "secret" that the film has been hyped up to have is, in retrospect, only fitting if you're ignorant as to what the set-up entails. It's current genre on IMDb is only that of a "thriller" (Ebert's review, on the other hand, says simply "a documentary"), but even if it is fake I don't see really where the thrills are. Some suspense is to be had, to be certain, at what the guys will come across when they get to Michigan, as is the moment as they come up to Angela's house. What it comes down to is being about the mystery of the human condition, to get all pretentious about it. The film is intimate in scope, though complicated by how facebook and social networking mucks up common human interaction. I was involved with the parts of uncracking the sort of web-of-lies made up around Angela, Megan and Abby and so on, some of this done in such a style as intricate though unassuming. It also by the time it got to Angela made me wonder if she was like a Mark Whitacre ala The Informant! character, who makes up so many lies that it becomes the truth of the matter, or spoken so simply as if it is all true (i.e. "My parents died and I was raised an orphan, caught a big break").
But it didn't take long for me to be sucked in completely by just how painfully normal everything is about the family. And this, coupled with Angela on screen, her actual talent as a painter on display and what her family life is really like, connected me ever so much more to the characters. This is somewhat a tragedy, but I can't say quite if it is on either side. No one gets into shouting matches, and no one ever raises their voices. Both parties care too much about the other, even as so much un-truthiness floats in the air. The human souls of Angela, and even Nev to a degree, are opened up bare and wide open by the last ten to fifteen minutes by what is said and by what is shown. We, or at least I, more than understood what she did: this was her escapism, the cross between reality and fantasy by way of the distance and illusion capable by facebook and the like. Maybe I was saddened by the awful side Facebook has done to this relationship. On the other hand, they wouldn't have met in the manner they had- or gotten so intimate, maybe too much so- via the website that allows for friendships to be made and maintained and grow so easily. There's even, just slightly, a small bit of paranoia one takes away from the film about how those of us who make friendships on such sites, the risk that is taken with really connecting.
But what is friendship anyway, on the human level? Trust? Respect? Does Angela show these by film's end? I'm not sure; in the final title card it's stated Nev and Angela are still 'facebook friends' (and certainly, if the film is all real, she gave her consent as the family did to be in it). The layers of what it is to just live and be connected to one another or how to survive are really what's at stake here. In those terms it may be just as or more important than Exit Through the Gift Shop, if one would try to compare. But, again, at the moment I want to try to think in terms of the content of its people, the heart of the matter.
This, I should add, should go without saying how I've kind of skipped over the technical aspects (this, as Matt has pointed out, shouldn't be disregarded). Why shoot on such a camera, for example, that Lynch didn't even use for Inland Empire? The most sophisticated these guys get- and these dudes have professional equipment and have made commercials for people as high-up as NIKE- are wireless lav-mics used for when Nev and the other first go to Angela's house without the camera meant to be there. As a stylistic choice, if it is staged, it is rather creative as a way to make it a "home-movie" in a full kind of way. Though my instinct would tell me that this was more of a coincidence, that the film was shot the way it was as a kind of side-project, and by the time it picked up the urgency of the narrative they had been filming the way they had for so long as to not go any other way. I've never felt closer to the rough format of a consumer-camera in a majorly released motion picture as I have here.
In short, Catfish carries a lot of weight, thematically, emotionally, as a punch to the gut and the intellect. How did they pull it off? I think they were just there. Maybe I'm too trusting, or not skeptical enough. I usually think I have a good handle on these things. But at the least, in 80 minutes, I felt I got to know Nev, how he viewed the situation, and how Angela did as well. No one's really a "bad" person, and at worst Angela is just a messed-up gal with too much time on Facebook when not in the dregs of her everyday life. Roger Ebert sums it up best: "Let's agree on this: We deserve to share happiness in this world, and if we supply it in the way it's sought and nobody gets hurt, is that a bad thing?"
If it is all staged, then, un-sarcastically, you guys are the "best writers in Hollywood."
PS: This is a perfect compendium, and maybe even more about Facebook, with The Social Network.
PPS: Being that it's Halloween season as well, here's a song from the Muppet Show that kind of sums up a lot of what I've been writing about.... Okay, not really, but it's a fun song anyway!