By Don Simpson | September 15, 2010
Directors: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Personally, I never read reviews before seeing a film but I understand that most of our readership probably does otherwise. In the case of Catfish, I beg for you to not read anything about the film and just go see it. No matter how ambiguously I pen this review, I fear that there is no way to discuss Catfish as to not destroy your viewing experience. So, this will be my final plea for you to stop reading and come back to Smells Like Screen Spirit after you see the film.
OK, so I am now going to assume that those of you who are still reading this review have either already seen Catfish or you are not afraid of learning too much information about the film. Everyone else should have stopped reading by now. OK. Good. There will be spoilers coming very soon…
In 2007, the co-producing/co-directing team of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman began filming a documentary of Ariel’s younger brother Nev, a dance photographer, as he developed a Facebook friendship with a prepubescent art prodigy named Abby. The friendship was originally instigated by Abby when she sent Nev a painting of one of his photographs; it quickly escalated to Abby mailing boxes of her work to Nev. Nev’s Facebook relationship with Abby seems very intriguing to Joost and Schulman, but they presumably never suspected that the relationship would take the strange directions that it does…
Nev promptly becomes Facebook friends with Abby’s mother, Angela, and Abby’s sultry older half-sister, Megan; soon Nev is connected with an wide assortment of other family members and random family friends. It is only right and natural that Megan and Nev commence a virtual Facebook flirtation which quickly evolves to cover the gamut of modern communication: texting, IMing and good old fashioned phone conversations. Megan, an amateur musician, begins writing songs for Nev and posts the new MP3s to her Facebook page.
Things suddenly begin to unravel. Nev, horrified and humiliated, becomes reluctant to continue the documentary. Ariel and Henry urge him to continue — they realize that they have hit a cinematic goldmine. One thing leads to another and the three guys arrive in Michigan — with cameras blazing — to confront Megan, Angela and Abby. They arrive to find a very ordinary and soft-spoken middle-aged housewife who has woven her lifelong fantasies into a complex network of Facebook facades, all to attract and retain Nev’s attention. Vulnerable and sympathetic — though prone to lies and gross exaggerations — it seems she merely longs to be able to sell her paintings; and posing as a very young outsider artist seemed like her best option to do so.
Somehow this strange woman, who has done nothing but lie to Nev, transfixes him and wins his sympathy. Nev seems to think that since Angela’s reality is so depressing that gives her ample reason to fabricate a more exciting existence. I find it to be very difficult to agree with Nev on this, but I wonder if he feels equally guilty for using Angela in this film.
Catfish is an extremely potent critical analysis and philosophical diatribe on modern communication and the necessary rewriting of social rules and morals associated with 21st century relationships; it is all enough to give Marshall McLuhan a virtual post-mortem orgasm. In fact, it is almost too potent and too perfect (so much so that it is tempting to assume that this is all just a elaborately constructed post-modern ruse ala Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop). But if it is true that this entire documentary is essentially a mockumentary, well, Joost and the Schulman brothers deserve even greater kudos for pulling off such a wonderfully transfixing prank.
My favorite part of Catfish is that it opens to the score of “Good Vibrations” by The Langley Schools Music Project — an alluring example of outsider music created by children which works as a perfect introduction to this film about a child outsider artist. (The remaining soundtrack is courtesy of Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo fame).