Thursday, September 16, 2010

CATFISH (2010)

The Score: 5 out of 10

The marketing of Catfish (2010) is ridiculous: "Don't let anyone tell you what it is." You might be able to get away with that if you were Alfred Hitchcock at the height of his career when he released a similar marketing campaign for Psycho (1960). But the demand for complete secrecy for a documentary by unestablished filmmakers—regardless of its inventiveness—is simply hyperbolic marketing.

In Catfish, Nev Schulman Meets Megan Faccio and Her Family on Facebook
We will not reveal any spoilers here, which is the most its filmmakers can reasonably ask of us. But we will do our job as critics and explain what genre this film falls under and what it accomplishes without giving away the details. After reading this article, you should have a good idea whether or not this film is worth your time and money to watch.
Catfish (2010) Trailer (Misleading)
Before watching the film, we could not find any reliable classification of Catfish's genre and plot. The most we could learn about the film is what little there is in its trailer, which you can watch in the embedded clip above. Some people online warned us against watching the trailer because it supposedly spoils too much of the film's plot. Having watched the film now, we completely disagree. If anything, the trailer is simply misleading and hints at this film being a horror movie disguised as a documentary, like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. It is not.
Nev Falls Hard for Megan
Catfish is a creative documentary. Period. Some may rightly call into question its authenticity, but nothing takes place in Catfish that does not take place daily online. Catfish could be a genuine documentary for all we know. Nothing out-of-the-ordinary happens in the film, at all. But modern-day film audiences are beginning to understand that many documentaries are manufactured products no different than fictional films.
Nev is a Photographer of Modern Dance
Without naming names *cough* Michael Moore *cough*, many of the most popular documentarians of our age have been caught making things up for their documentary films. Most people tend to believe documentaries should literally "document" real events as they occur naturally. But when documentarians begin scripting and directing supposedly true events for their films, then the documentarian is crossing an ethical line. Sometimes documentarians admit openly to doing it, like Werner Herzog, who revealed in Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary (2008) that he sometimes coaches his interviewees to do things they normally never do to express a certain theme or idea for the audience's benefit.
Humorous Parody of Michael Moore as a Documentarian in Team America (2004)
But true documentarians are enraged when manipulative filmmakers do not fess up to their tactics, because the credibility of all documentarians are called into question when their actions are not transparent to the public. What self-respecting documentarian wants to be compared to "Reality" Show Directors on TV, who more often than not only attempt to deceive their audience into believing this is reality when in fact it is simply badly scripted television with a tad more improvisational acting than normal?
What Do You Mean? Of Course this Normally Happen on All His Dates...
"Reality" Show: The Bachelor
To further confuse the issue, faux documentaries have also become popular in conventional filmmaking. The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, Quarantine, District 9 and a number of other films pretend to be normal documentaries or home videos at first, only to gradually shift into a clearly fictional ride into bizarre territory. Decades before this technique became popular in the horror genre, comedy filmmakers successfully use it as far back as Woody Allen's Zelig and Rob Reiner's This is Spinal Tap.
One of the Most Effective Moments from Any Horror Film
The Blair Witch Project
But what separates those faux horror and comedy documentaries from Catfish? At some point you realize they are obviously fake, but with Catfish you do not. Those fake horror documentaries obviously did not happen. Everyone "killed" in those movies were actually still alive in real life and participated in interviews and press events. Most of those comedies and horror movies were obviously not real since recognizable actors using fictional character names were clearly present. And more often than not, the events in those films clearly never took place in real life (i.e. no gigantic extra-terrestrial monsters have attacked New York City like in Cloverfield, etc).
As Realistic as Cloverfield Might Feel at Times, this Clearly Never Happened
In other words, in most cases an astute observer can easily deduce what is a documentary and what is a faux documentary. But in Catfish, an astute observer really cannot determine with certainty how real these events are and how much they might be manufactured. And the filmmakers apparently desire this ambiguity, since their marketing emphasizes it.
Fake? Real? We're Not Telling...
We would respect and enjoy Catfish far more if the filmmakers had actually marketed the film as a fascinating documentary rather than intentionally lie to us by implying the film is a fictional thriller. In short, the marketing of this film is unethical. On the other hand, if the film really is a documentary, then it is exploitive of its subjects in several unethical ways, the least of which is casting them and their real troubles in a fictional light. And if the film REALLY is a narrative film disguised as a documentary, then the filmmakers only pretended their film's characters were real to manipulate the audience's sympathies for these fictional characters. They are shamelessly pulling our heart strings with bald-faced lies.
Unasked Question: "Is this ethical?"
At the end of the day, any way you look at this film, the filmmakers are doing something unethical here, even if we do not know exactly what. For this reason, Catfish scores much lower as a film than it otherwise would deserve for its impressive merits. If Catfish had been forthcoming about its identity to begin with, then we would not have ended up feeling so betrayed. This is rather ironic considering what takes place in the film.

 We have spoken about what we hate about Catfish, so now we will explain what we like about the film:

1. Catfish is edited together exceptionally well.

2. The subject matter is fascinating and timely. We will explain this in more detail below.

3. Some of the techniques used in the film to respresent surfing the internet, messaging people on facebook, texting friends, and traveling with the aid of GPS devices are nothing short of ingenious. In particular, the opening credit sequence of Catfish is one of the best ever made to represent the digital age.

4. The music and soundtrack for the film are delightful and we imagine some people in the future might enjoy playing the earlier segments of Catfish in the background on their computer or iPod for its atmospheric levity and beautiful music.

5. Nev Schulman is a charismatic and fun person to follow around on his adventures and it is easy for us to empathize with his emotional rollercoaster ride. But we express this with the following caveat: he occasionally does bizarre things on camera in very bad taste, like sticking his hand down into the crouch of his pants. Things like this risk alienating him with viewers.
Healthy Skepticism Goes a Looong Way Online
On the internet, there is a certain kind of anonymity that can make personal identity fluid and ambiguous. In this nether region, the whole spectrum of humanity can be found. The rich and the poor. The intelligent and the stupid. The educated and the ignorant. The creative and the unimaginative. The internet is even populated with dating sites, personal classified ads, and many other ways for people to connect to one another. Catfish deals realistically with a common result of these connections.
The Blurring of the Real and Virtual
All walks of life navigate the virtual world together without the normal constraints found in the physical world, which often leads to excess as evident by the widespread diffusion of cyber sex, pornography, vulgar language, and other extreme behavior commonly encountered online.

Although, in spite of these lurid extremes, the internet also provides a venue for like-minded people to find each other and network, enables people of differing minds to discuss their differences openly, and allows anyone with an idea the opportunity to communicate that idea with the rest of the world.

Soon everyone will have to make important decisions about how they will and how they will not interact with other people online. Everyone should ponder what happens as our relationships to other humans become more defined by the constraints of technology used by social networking sites like Facebook.

If you want to become better informed, then Catfish is a remarkable film for our times. We can envision college professors assigning Catfish and discussing it with their students in class. But if you are looking for a good date movie, then you would be better off throwing this fish back in the water and checking out another film opening this weekend, Easy A, which we will review next. Catfish was filmed on a low-quality digital video format, so you will not be losing anything by skipping its theatrical run and waiting for its release on video.

If your children are actively involved in social networking online, then this film could provide you an oppportunity to teach them about the pitfalls and frequent dishonesty in online relationships. But frank discussion and expression of sexuality is present throughout the film, so you need to judge the maturity of your children for yourself.
Interview with Catfish (2010) Filmmakers

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EASY A (2010)

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  1. Very interesting article.
    However, to be fair, while their "style" borrows a convention of the documentary genre, neither Cloverfield, Quarantine, nor District 9 attempted to pull the wool over anyone's eyes. They never tried to pass themselves off as actual documentaries. Blair Witch DID, on the other hand, have a rather heavy-handed on-line promotion that confused people into thinking it was an actual documentary.

  2. True, Blairwitch did play up a misleading "is this real?" marketing approach, too. But clearly a ghost story would have less credibility than Catfish, which does not present any paranormal scenarios. There is nothing inherent to Catfish that suggests it is a fake and in fact, in recent interviews the filmmakers give indication of their film being nonfiction (an actual documentary). Somewhere an unethical lie exists in their film and marketing.

  3. I disagree with your 'unethical' claims. The subjects of the film are all real people who have been interviewed etc etc. They all agreed to be filmed and for that film to be distributed. It's called a 'reality thriller.' They don't just say thriller. While the trailer may be misleading, it's not unethical to try and make your film seem more appealing to a target audience. I watched the movie cause the trailer looked awesome and loved the movie. I don't care if I was 'duped' into watching it. I probably wouldn't have seen it otherwise.

    I say hats off to these guys. Great movie.

  4. The idea that this film is 'unethical' is frankly ludicrous. To claim that we have been 'betrayed' in believing that this film is either fictional or real is to discredit the merits of this film. Half of it's beauty is in the ambiguity, and I argue that the film makers know this. In wondering whether we are watching reality or fiction, we are assigning ourselves wholeheartedly to the themes displayed in the film itself...we are unsure whether something we are seeing on a screen is real life. If it is fake, what better way to question the reliability of things we see in the modern world than to create a believable fictional documentary? Wonderful on all counts.