Tuesday, January 11, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Catfish (2010)

Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman's documentary Catfish is a cautionary tale for the Internet Age, a compelling and yet surprisingly emotional reminder to not always believe everything you see Online. 

The controversial 2010 film is also a testament to how important the Online or electronic experience has become to our society and our relationships in 2011; an epoch when you "sext" your prospective partner without ever having met her face-to-face, and when photos on Facebook are readily accepted as truthful identification of strangers.

Catfish depicts a strange and unnerving chapter in the life of successful New York photographer Yaniv Schulman, whose work was recently published in a prominent magazine. 

Following that publication, Yaniv  is contacted by 8-year old Abby Faccio, a child prodigy who produces a startling and life-like painting of his photo, and who, after that introduction, keeps sending him further packages.  Each package has a new painting in it, and more:T-shirts and the like.

As Yaniv's brother and friend -- the film's directors -- record him in his studio responding to Abby's unusual artistry, Yaniv is drawn deeper and deeper into her world.  For instance, he learns of her beautiful and eccentric mother, Angela and their home in Michigan.  One day, a snowstorm there topples their 150-year old maple tree, and it has to be bulldozed.  Yaniv reflects that their life sounds great "...at least from Facebook."

And then, finally, Yaniv starts to develop a long-distance relationship with Megan, Abby's 19-year old sister.  Megan, I should add, is a gorgeous ballet dancer who plays the cello and guitar and rides horses on her farm.

Recognize this face?  It's Megan Faccio, or is it?
Soon, Yaniv is head-over-heels in love with a woman he has never met, and Catfish portrays this budding romance in totally electronic terms, with a dazzling flurry of images and posts on Facebook, with IM chats, music downloads and even establishing shot imagery that purposefully suggests the layout of Google Maps. 

YouTube makes an important appearance in the film too.  We get extreme close-ups of Internet transmission buttons reading "Send" and "Confirm."  The impression is instant connection, not to mention instant gratification.

But Yaniv's keyboard love life comes into question unexpectedly when he learns that the songs Megan has downloaded on Facebook and represented as her own work are actually already on YouTube; the recordings of other artists. 

Appropriately, the photographer begins to suspect that there is much more going on than meets the eye, and commences a road trip to Michigan with his filmmaker friends to meet Megan, Angela and Abby face-to-face.  He wants to know if he's been lied to.    He wants to know if the Faccios are "complete psychopaths."

To tell you anything further about Catfish would probably ruin the effect of the film's heartfelt, even devastating third act.  But suffice it to say, before you learn the "secret" of Megan, Angela and Abby Faccio, these documentarians wring significant anxiety and mystery out of their cautionary tale. 

A 2:00 am, thick-of-the-night stop at an apparently abandoned horse farm supposedly belonging to Megan will have you on the edge of your seat, simply because you have no idea what to expect.  And once it is established that dishonesty is involved with the Facebook profiles, the movie makes the most with very little, causing you to wonder how strange, diabolical or weird the journey's destination and resolution might be.  This is a brilliant feint, especially given the film's valedictory moments.

I wrote above that Catfish is controversial, and that's because many people (including some critics) don't believe it is a legitimate documentary.  Rather, they believe that elements of the film (particularly how things are set-up in the first half) are deliberately staged. 

I will state, unequivocally, that there is no way that anything that occurs in the third act could possibly be staged, or faked.  Rather, it is one of the most unexpected, heart-rending twists I've seen on film in a long time, and no conventional Hollywood narrative would have dared taken this unglamorous direction. The person who is the subject of this third act, in that Michigan house, does not give a movie performance; but delivers - staggeringly - the entirety of a personality; of an individual life.  She presents everything that Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter can't, even at their pinnacle.   This human portrait that ends the film is so powerful it takes the breath away.

Whether any part of Catfish is faked may be of great interest for the historical record, but ultimately it doesn't matter in terms of how well the movie works. 

In this case, the idea that a documentary may not be exactly what it claims simply mirrors the subject matter; the idea that Facebook and other social networks aren't venues of strict truth.  As readers here well know, I  steadfastly believe that cinema reaches an apex of  quality when form echoes content, and so -- even if artificial to some extent -- Catfish passes that test.  The film's ultimately questionable form echoes the questionable content of Megan, Angela and Abby's online, electronic lives.

Romance via Photoshop.
I wish I could write more substantively and fully about Catfish today, but again, to do so would really spoil a very special, very singular viewing experience.  It's one you should reflect on for yourself.

Kathryn and I watched this documentary the other night and we were both perched on the edge of our seats throughout.  We were thirsty, but couldn't be roused from the sofa even to get a glass of water.  The movie -- at 89 minutes or so -- feels like about five minutes in duration.  It's literally that compelling. It draws you in.  You feel like you're typing on the keyboard yourself, or more aptly, looking over Yaniv's shoulder as he types.

What's the take-away from Catfish? Perhaps only that human beings are strange, multi-faceted creatures, and that our Internet avatars are alter-egos that may represent many things, but not the totality of that equation.  Those online "lives" may represent fragments of a personality.  Or projections of who we are...or would like to be.  They can be manifestations of fantasy, desire, or, at times, of a need to escape unpleasant reality.  
I've never seen a movie get at this relatively thoughtful and deep notion better than Catfish, though I have not yet seen The Social Network.   Regardless, it will be a very long time before I forget the lives that Yaniv intersects with in Ispheming, Michigan.   

To quote Yaniv, this movie may really "freak you out," or it may, unexpectedly, rouse in you deep feelings of...sympathy.  

And the caution in the cautionary tale?  The Internet is life all right, only it is life Photoshopped.

Best to keep that in mind.


  1. Does it appear early parts of the film are "recreations" of some kind? This is a convention common with certain documentaries, going as far back as the Oscar-winning Just Another Missing Kid.

    If not, is the general fact this film is covering an account of fraud the reason why people may be as skeptical about this as some were to the Joaquin Pheonix "incident"?

  2. Hi Fang!

    Yes, you nailed it. The early parts of the film seemed to me, anyway, to be staged or recreations of events.

    The last third of the film (the events in Michigan) appear unequivocally true.

    I have no first-hand knowledge that anything was staged, but let's just say that how things unfold in the first half of the film are very -- streamlined; everything is captured on film; framed and seen almost too perfectly. Thus the suspicion of fakery.

    That may not be the case however, I really don't know.

    And I think your second paragraph gets at the nature of the suspicion well: the subject of the film is indeed about a fraud of a sort.

    Great comment!


  3. Anonymous10:47 AM

    This was one of those films where it really did not matter if the film was staged or not. Many get hung up on “actual facts” and lose the bigger truths about the human condition that good fiction can unveil. If people get distracted by trying to figure out if this is fact or fiction, than they are not the audience that will get the most out of this film. Nice review.


  4. John, your review has me at the height of curiosity! It's in my Netflix queue now, but I'll have to wait until Feb 1st till it's available. Looking forward to it. Thanks, my friend.

  5. Hello, friends,

    Rick: I agree with you that it doesn't matter whether it is all truth or fiction, or part truth or part fiction...Catfish is simply fascinating. A great film, really.

    and Le0pard13: You're in for a treat! Enjoy (and write in and let me know what you think, come February).


  6. Grayson11:05 PM

    I've been interested in seeing this ever since I read Roger Ebert's review a couple of months ago. As I live relatively close to Ishpeming and have a few acquaintances from there that is of course another reason. It sounds like it would be really great to watch The Social Network and Catfish back to back.


  7. Grayson:

    That sounds like the perfect double feature. I still need to see The Social Network...!

    Let me know how you enjoy Catfish when you see it!


  8. I have a bad habit of only reading reviews of films/tv shows that I have already seen so I can compare the review against my own likes/dislikes. Since I've seen alot, I read alot of reviews. Stupid, yea I know.

    But I have never seen 'Catfish' and thanks to this review and comments, this is on my must-see list.

  9. Anonymous1:41 PM

    just gos to show ya that u can put anything on the internet but why would ppl mess with people emotions like that and why must ppl be fake ppl like that should be tied naked to a tree with honey dump on him/her and let the insects do what they want a slow and painful death just saying


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