Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Review: Catfish

Shouldn't people know by now not to trust the Internet?

In the documentary Catfish (2010, trailer) a young girl e-mails photographer Nev Schulman an image of a painting she has done of one of his photos. Nev starts to chat with Abby, and he soon starts talking with her mother Angela and her older sister Megan.

Eventually Abby and Angela start mailing Nev paintings, and Megan exchanges steamy sexts with him.

These people live a few states away, and Nev has never met them in person.

What are you talking about? How could this not be a good idea?

Nev tries to show his brother Ariel and friend Henry (the guys filming the documentary) a recording of Megan singing an original song. When the link doesn't work, Nev Googles the song title and finds the exact same recording under a different artist's name.

Nev investigates a number of other songs sent to him by Megan and discovers that they, too, are stolen. 'They're complete psychopaths!' Nev exclaims. 'I've probably been chatting with a guy the whole time!'

The three decide to drive to Angela's home in Ishpeming, Michigan to confront these people and figure out what's going on.

SPOILER ALERT: Although the reveal happens fairly early in the movie's runtime, Catfish's marketing and trailers are geared towards ensuring its mystery. I'm including this notice out of respect to the filmmakers and to anyone who wants to watch Catfish cold.

Now I will leave a gap so that spoiler-avoiders won't risk reading my next bit by accident.

It turns out that almost everything is a ruse. Abby is really the daughter of Angela, but Angela and her husband Vince look completely different from their Facebook pictures. Abby didn't do the paintings, and Megan plumb doesn't exist. Angela fabricated their Facebook profiles, and has been contacting Nev as a whole interconnected network of fictitious people.

As illustrated by this creepy roster.

My Take

Despite its claiming to be the truth, I believe that the whole of Catfish is fake.

First of all, why is Nev's brother filming the documentary in the first place? Catfish doesn't even have a story until we find out that Nev's new Facebook buddies may not be who they seem. The opening credits display the following text:

'On August 13, 2007, one of Yaniv's photos appeared in The New York Sun. Three months later Yaniv received a painting of his photograph in the mail...After a few months, Rel and Henry started documenting Abby and Nev's friendship.'

Are we supposed to believe that Catfish is a Zapruder-like film in which the filmmakers just happened to stumble upon something big whilst minding their own business? Thank God there turned out to be a conspiracy; Nev's Internet Girlfriend probably wouldn't be as interesting a film.

For what is supposed to be an average guy, Nev seems almost idiotically naïve. 'Abby' sends Nev a T-shirt of 'her brother's band' The Casualties - which is a name that even the most cursory of Google searches can reveal is a 20-year-old punk band. I guess Angela was pretty lucky that Nev is neither a punk rock fan, nor is he smart enough to look these things up.

Also, if I 'met' a girl online who was recording music as good as Megan's, the first thing I would do would be to look up whether she has made a CD or is enjoying any success. Looking everything up might seem paranoid, but even the most ignorant Internet-user nowadays knows that there's tons of false information out there, and that corroborating your facts is always a good idea.

The clincher of Catfish's fakeness comes right at the end. Angela's husband Vince, who is previously portrayed as a fairly clueless simpleton, suddenly busts out a full-blown parable: 

'They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China...By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mush and tasteless. So this guy came up with the idea that if you put some catfish in with 'em, the catfish will keep the cod agile. And there are those people who are catfish in life...They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank God for the catfish, because we'd be droll, boring and dull if we didn't have somebody nipping at our fin.'

This reminded me of a line in The Dark Knight: 'You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.' Both quotations blatantly announce themselves as big themes in the movie. 'Listen up and remember this, this is important stuff here.'

Anyway, so what if it is a fake? The mockumentary and found-footage filmmaking styles have yielded great films before. If Blair Witch Project was a horror film and This is Spinal Tap a comedy, Catfish is meant to be a drama wherein Angela tuns out to not be malicious, but tragic:

'I didn't want to lose the friendship...I didn't want to lose that, but then I was like; if I'm lying, it's not really a friendship anyway...And I really thought you'd just end up hating me. You were able to show me things that I don't have access to...So a lot of the personalities that came out were just fragments of myself. Fragments of things I used to be, wanted to be, never could be.'

So there you have it; Angela is a misunderstood soul just looking for an emotional connection. Aww.


I really don't like it when movie characters' unhinged behavior is downplayed like this. In Lars and the Real Girl, Ryan Gosling believes that a sex doll is both alive and his girlfriend. Instead of finding him psychological help, Gosling's friends and neighbors humor his delusion by acting as though the doll is real.

Likewise, in American Beauty Wes Bentley's character secretly follows around Thora Birch with a video camera, and sometimes films her through her bedroom window...but she decides this incredibly creepy habit is okay because he says he's 'just curious.'

I guess the actions of the 'normal' characters in these movies are supposed to be understanding and sympathetic, but their thinking seems to be: 'Oh, these poor, strange people; they just can't help themselves! What they need is for me to play their little games and pity them.' That's not sympathy. At best it's condescending, and at worst it's inviting danger. 

In Catfish, Nev lets Angela off the hook because she gave up her dream of becoming a dancer to start a family, and because she now has to take care of Vince's severely retarded twin sons. I understand that Angela has gone through a lot of sadness and hardship, but I don't think that excuses certain nasty aspects of her online deception:

When Nev presses Angela to let him meet Megan, Angela resists admitting that Megan doesn't exist, and instead texts Nev as 'Megan' to tell him that she is an alcoholic and has just entered rehab. For some reason Angela also tells Nev that she herself has cancer, which also turns out to be a lie. If these aren't flat-out emotional manipulations, I don't know what are.

Also, there's the sexting thing. Here's Nev reading out some of their exchanges:

'Megan: 'I'm in the bathtub, thinking of you.' Nev: 'Funny, I was just thinking about you in the shower earlier.' Megan: 'Mm. I'd love to hear about that...My body is craving your touch tonight.' Me: 'What exactly would you do if you had me there?' Megan: 'I'd have you in the tub with me between my legs...begging you to make love to me.''


For all the deep meaning the catfish-monologue wants to have, I don't see it. What does 'thank God for the catfish' mean? Thank God for liars and deceivers? Is Vince suggesting that Angela's ruse is a good thing? Does this mean he's okay with his wife pursuing sordid online affairs behind his back?


Despite my having problems with its execution, I actually think that the premise of Catfish has a lot of ingenuity behind it. Not only does it allow its penniless filmmakers to make a film just with amateur actors and limited resources; the premise only works with amateur actors and limited resources.

Straightforward fiction films require expenses such as design, costumes and lighting to appear convincing, and documentaries tend to require distinguished interviewees. Catfish's naturalistic premise doesn't require much money, and its unknown subjects didn't require connections to get a hold of. The idea is genius in its resourcefulness.

Catfish must have been a good strategic move to break into the film world, as Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost have since directed the third and fourth instalments of the lucrative Paranormal Activity franchise. 

Further Reading

For more about the horrors of the Internet, see my post about Hard Candy.

For more about fake documentaries, see my post about Troll Hunter.

For more about deceit, see my post about Nine Queens.

Screengrabs: Catfish was produced by Supermarché and Hit The Ground Running Films. The UK DVD was distributed by Momentum Pictures Home Entertainment.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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