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Entries in Catfish [2010} (1)

Wednesday
Jan192011

Catfish (2010) Home Video Review

'Net Worthless

A couple days ago, the subject of turning off movies came up in a conversation between me and my friends Graham and Brock.  Both of them not only copped to stopping movies at the half-way point—or ten minutes in—but defended their habit as a means of mental self-preservation (my term, not theirs).  They reasoned that there are too many crappy independent films on Netflix Instant, and too many good movies that they could be watching, to waste more time than necessary on something that doesn’t storm out of the gate.

At the time, I was appalled.  This idea was completely foreign to me—not wanting to stop a movie before it’s finished, but actually doing it.  Maybe I have a personality disorder, but I’m strict about seeing every film through to the end.  Hell, in 2005 I popped a couple of Xanax in a movie theatre so I could survive a panic attack brought on by Elizabethtown (true story).  I shook and sweated and clawed at my hair—creating what was, I’m sure, my wife’s ideal date.  But I didn’t leave my seat.

This policy is often torturous (much like reading this preamble is for you), but on a handful of occasions it has yielded fantastic surprises.  Had I turned off Despicable Me, I would’ve missed out on an exciting, touching ending.  Had Darlena and I gone through with our plan to walk out of The Butterfly Effect, we would’ve missed the fact that the movie isn’t all about child pornography and setting animals on fire; but is a pretty gripping story about time travel and regret.  Sometimes even the worst movies can turn on a dime, and jumping ship can cause you to miss out on not only a great film with a rocky start, but also important lessons about film appreciation.

But what happens when the opposite is true?  Is it ever okay to turn off a great movie when it begins to show signs of sucking?  Sadly, my personal answer is still “no”, but Catfish made me seriously consider giving in.

You’ve come an awful long way for me to ask you to turn back, but you should stop reading if you want to avoid spoilers (Is that meta-irony or just hypocrisy?).  This movie was hyped up by its super-secret twist ending, and discussing that ending is the only way to make sense of how it actually ruined an otherwise terrific film.

So come back later, if you’re intent on seeing this.  If you don’t care, let’s go.

Catfish is a documentary (its authenticity is still being debated) about a New York photographer named Yaniv “Nev” Schulman who begins an on-line correspondence with an eight-year-old girl named Abby, after she sends him a painted version of one of his photos that appeared in The New York Sun.  Through Abby, Nev meets her mother, Angela and hot older sister Megan; it’s weird to say “meets” in the context of phone calls and Facebook messaging, with no physical interaction, but Nev develops a long-distance relationship with this Michigan family that lasts for several months.

Nev shares an office with his brother Ariel (“Rel”) and friend Henry Joost, both of whom are aspiring filmmakers.  The three agree to document this strange new experience, for whatever it’s worth.  Nev receives huge packages in the mail with more of Abby’s paintings; Angela calls regularly to tell Nev about Abby’s latest art show, and to brag in disbelief that people are shelling out more and more money for her little girl’s work.  In separate chats, Nev and Megan flirt heavily via text messages, Facebook and, sometimes, phone calls.  It all feels too good to be true; turns out it is.

One evening, Nev and the gang listen to one of many original songs that Megan posted on Facebook, which she claims were co-written by her brother, Alex.  Through some quick searching, the guys find numerous YouTube clips of live performances by other artists that match up precisely.  Nev calls Megan out on the lie, and she denies everything.  By now, he’s too infatuated with this impossibly sexy model-type that he ignores the fire alarms sounding in the back of his head.

Up to this point, Catfish had me and Darlena on the edge of our seats.  Not only had Joost and Schulman used Google Maps and Facebook to revolutionize the way an audience can interact with a documentary, they created an atmosphere of underlying tension that drove us nuts.  Was this a story about pedophilia?  Or false identity?  Or just obsession?  Watching the frequent chats and phone calls and confessionals where we see Nev falling harder and harder for this family, I grew restless wondering what trap these eager, young filmmakers were falling into.  At the same time, I was enthralled by the way they depicted the distance between New York and Michigan, using maps and animation in ways that evolve the tired visual clichés we’ve seen for decades—this is one of several new techniques that made Catfish imminently watchable, for awhile.  I thought to myself, The Social Network was the first movie about Facebook, but Catfish is the first Facebook Movie.

The tension mounts as Nev, Rel and Henry decide to drop in on the family as a detour on the way back from a video shoot in Vail, Colorado.  They rent a car and drive through the night, arriving at Megan’s horse farm, about fifty miles (if I recall correctly) from Angela’s house.  Megan called earlier in the evening to say that she'd been birthing horses in the barn, and that she’d be at it for quite a bit.  The guys pull up to an empty farm house and locked barn at 2:30 in the morning, finding only creeped-out feelings and more lies.

The next morning, they drop in on Angela and find not the svelte dancer from Abby’s paintings, but a portly middle-aged woman with two mentally challenged young sons and a husband who has the look of a brawler but the apparent brains of a Two and a Half Men fan.

With a half hour left of the movie, you might expect some bizarre Texas Chainsaw Massacre shit to go down.  Surely, the movie’s big secret can’t be that Nev met someone on-line who turned out not to be who she said she was.  But that’s it.  Like a zombie, Catfish ambles along, drooling and mindless for thirty minutes after being pronounced dead.

It turns out that the real Megan hasn’t spoken to the rest of the family in years, and she doesn’t have a brother named Alex.  The person Nev had gotten to know was Angela doing a “young” voice and stealing the photo album of another Facebook user to fashion a sexy new identity.  Abby is real, but she’s just a girl that Angela cares for, who doesn’t paint and who’s never sold a doodle.  Nev listens to Angela’s stories about the life of regret and sacrifice she’s led to support her husband and his invalid children; she used Facebook as a way to escape from her personal prison, and she never meant to hurt anyone.

Nev takes all this in and becomes friends with Angela.  His brother and Joost soften up a bit, too, a dramatic change from their collective freak-out hours earlier, when all signs pointed to Get the Fuck out of There.  Coincidentally, I had the same experience watching the last third of this movie.

What began as a thrilling mystery about the dangers of Internet anonymity with a heavy air of dread ended as a half-hour A&E special about people coping with mental disorders.  Either one is a fine premise for a documentary, but the gear switch is so sudden and so dishonest that I went from loving to hating Catfish in about forty-five seconds.  The dark energy and momentum of the first hour gives way to a leisurely piano-music montage of a third act, in which the filmmakers piece together—again and again and again and again—all the fragments that we’d seen just a little while ago in their new, true context.

It’s not enough, I suppose, for me to remember all the phone conversations between Nev and “Megan”; no, I have to be shown them again as if I’m getting closer to nabbing Keyser Soze.  Oh, can we please have another reminder that Angela painted those pictures?  Because I’m not sure that three statements from Abby and at least three admissions by Angela drives the point home.

I can safely say I could’ve gotten every important piece of information Catfish has to offer by imagining a thirty-second anecdote about Internet dating; something like this:

“Did you hear about the guy who started talking to this little girl on line and fell in love with her sister?  Yeah, the kid’s an art prodigy who makes tons of money, and the mom’s her manager.  Well, check it out: the guy totally got played by this lonely Michigan housewife who made the whole thing up!”

My first reaction, if someone pitched that to me as a movie, would be, “That’s a great fifteen-minute short; I’m sure it’ll kill on the festival circuit.”

My second would be, “Tell me more about this guy talking to little girls on the Internet.”

Darlena enjoyed Catfish as an interesting look at the way troubled people deal with pain.  You may look at it the same way.  But as a movie, this is as frustrating a case of bait and switch as I’ve ever seen.  It’s also a strong case for softening my stance on sticking with a movie, no matter what.

I never thought I’d entertain such thoughts, but this film caused me some real trauma.  I said it last night, and it’s still true this morning: Fuck Catfish.