Thursday, October 21, 2010


“Is it real?” The question periodically buzzes through the mind. We ask it often of ourselves, perhaps as we’re walking down a summer street, light breeze flowing by and our brains on a cloud, feeling so good we suspect we’re in a dream. We ask it of reality television and gossip rags and porn stars. We ask it of those flowers in that vase in the hall and the silhouette of the cat that sits in the window across the street watching us. We ask it all the time, except when we need to know the answer.

Then we’re all too happy to go along with whatever sweet lie is proffered—a basic truism of human nature illustrated by Catfish, a sort of docu-thriller from first-time directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. Facebook offers many beautiful illusions amid its imitation of human connection, not least of which is the idea that we’re at the centre of a great network of associates, the star of the story of our lives with a captive audience attentively watching. Yaniv “Nev” Schulman—a New York photographer and younger brother of co-director Ariel—is one such star, discovering the dim edges of the stage and realizing what lies behind the footlights for the first time.

When Abby, an eight-year-old girl from Ishpeming, Michigan, begins sending Nev paintings of his photographs, the young man is at first flattered by the attention and even a little awed by the girl’s talent. But the relationship doesn’t stop there, and as his office fills with paintings his inbox fills with friend requests from Abby’s family. He talks on the phone to Angela, the mother, while kindling a fiery virtual romance with Abby’s older sister, Megan. Soon, he has an entire cyber-life centred on the Ishpeming clan, including cousins and friends, all keeping him up-to-date on the latest exciting developments in Abby’s painting career and egging on his romance with Megan.

Despite its ostensible documentary origins, Catfish is shaped like fiction, right down to the pervasive Mark Mothersbaugh score that coats every sequence in thick sonic shellac (direct cinema, this ain’t). The film has been promoted as a thriller, and the story certainly takes on that shape as it works its way towards the truth behind the Ishpeming family. I don’t doubt this is a savvy marketing move, but there are dangers here as well. Other films before have merged documentary and thriller conventions to ramp up the drama—The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity, for instance—but they were pure fantasy, while Catfish tramps through the lives of real human beings. A little more responsibility and maturity is required, to say nothing of a more sensitive touch (I’m not sure if secretly filming people necessarily qualifies as any of these things, is what I’m getting at).

The directors happily, if somewhat blithely, flirt with fiction, although the ambiguity is surely part of the point. We spend 90 minutes being taught to doubt everything we’re told, so little wonder we doubt the teacher. But this blurring of fact and fiction often feels less sophisticated technique and more side effect of fumbling filmmaking. The revelation that Megan has been claiming other people’s songs as her own to impress Nev, for instance, is so curiously condensed and neat that it appears to have been staged for our benefit. Now perhaps the scene really was staged for the sake of convenience, or maybe just edited so tightly that it lost all naturalism, but I don’t trust it either way.

Regardless of the explanation, this is definitely a far cry from unruly documentary truth, as some critics have commented. That’s no great sin necessarily, but what really makes the scene questionable is the fact that one of the songs Megan steals credit for is “Truman Sleeps,” the distinctive Philip Glass piano piece from The Truman Show. It’s just too much—Nev, trapped in a false world, is sent a song from a film about that exact subject? Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it’s rarely so convenient, is it?

But such doubts begin to fade once we meet the Christof of Nev’s world, the person who has been pulling the strings and building the sets, constructing a pseudo-world around Nev in order to fulfill some obscure personal need. Once this person enters the scene, the film, seemingly linear and constrained, opens up with some surprisingly emotional and complex questions about identity in the digital age. More than anything, the ability to assume a new life online has shown how malleable our identities truly are. We are not merely who we are in our daily lives, but also an accumulation of possibilities and regrets, who we were once and who we never were at all.

These are fascinating questions posed by an imperfect film. The greatest drawback of the film’s reliance on thriller archetypes is how it pits Nev against his deceiver, when the relationship is clearly more complicated than that. The film does much to compensate for this in the end—the last third is surprisingly tender and sympathetic—but the imbalance is clearly felt. All this subterfuge and suspense turns the film into a sort of labyrinth, and we all expect to find a monster at the heart of each labyrinth, right?

Of course, this isn’t a thriller, there are no monsters in real life, and the person at the centre of the maze is more complex and sympathetic than you would imagine. It’s notable that when the trio is steps away from the truth, they almost turn around but for the goading of Nev, who taunts them into staying. Callow youth? Perhaps so, but they might simply sense that there are questions here too big for them to answer (their suggestion that life requires people who fool us and keep us on our toes is a feeble attempt at insight, and somewhat narcissistic to boot, as if everyone in life is just here to make things more interesting for them). We’ve created a vast web of digital connections and transformed human relationships into electrical commodities that can be numbered and ranked, collected like bottle caps and discarded as easily. But when you look a person in the eye and ask yourself just who they really are, no amount of programming ingenuity can solve that problem. “Is it real?” Don’t ask—you don’t want to know.

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