Review: Catfish (spoiler-free)

 


The Tagline for Catfish: Don’t Let Anyone Tell You What It Is

The marketing campaign for Catfish has done a brilliant job of piquing interest in an unknown commodity. What is Catfish, a documentary, a mockumentary, a prankumentary? Is this so-called “real facebook movie” a cautionary tale of online encounters? And where does the catfish enter the equation? No wonder J.J. Abrams is mentioned in the end credits, his TED talk about the importance of the unopened mystery box is precisely the allure of Catfish.

Without delving into spoilers, Catfish is a story about an online romance that very quickly becomes something more than it seems on the surface. Like Capturing the Friedmans, it is a documentary that appears to evolve by accident, starting with a subject rather benign and ending with something profoundly unnerving (curiously, Friedmans’ director Andrew Jarecki has a producer credit for Catfish). Documentary audiences have grown instinctively skeptical in lieu of the run of fictionalized documentaries as of late; I too came at this film with the expectations of being had. What I did not expect was how convincing it all is, and regardless of its actual authenticity (the online debate rages forth) the Turing test of believing it to be true is enough to make my skin crawl.

In what has already been a stellar year for documentary films, Catfish stands out as an original piece. Foregoing the trend of issue-heavy narratives it captures something primal and tragic about human nature. At times tense, sad and even a little creepy, the film runs the gamut of emotions while weighing heavy on the mind long after the film had stopped. The filmmakers flirt perilously with exploitation, and as a paying voyeur I felt that moral quandary resting on my shoulders as well. For those who like their documentaries on the Werner Herzog end of the spectrum, Catfish is a sublime treat.

Best documentary of the year: what else do you need to know? Let the spoiler discussion in the comment section begin!

***For my in-depth spoiler speculation on the authenticity of the documentary, check my other post***:
http://www.rowthree.com/2010/10/22/catfish-why-the-hoax-is-probably-fake/

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Jay C.
Guest

It's a great mystery at the expense of some unfortunate people. I'm still not sure how I feel about that, but I was certainly caught up in it all in the theatre.

I am a little lost on your Herzog comparison though. To me, Catfish plays more like a glorified, quirky news magazine segment. It's an elevated, carefully crafted, sensational mystery on par with something like To Catch a Predator. Not saying that's necessarily a bad thing, I just think it's many levels below Herzog's output.

rot
Guest

Herzog taps into the sublime experience of humans in a very earnest way, and accidentally or not, this documentary gets into some pretty raw moments that you almost want to turn your eyes away they are so frank. SPOILERS, when they enter the house and you see the mentally disabled children, and just this sense of stark reality versus the illusion that had been built up online, it feels to me like something Herzog would relish. In his documentary Land of Silence and Darkness or Even Dwarfs Started Small, you seem him curious about fringe individuals.

rot
Guest

to me the division between Morris and Herzog is that Herzog is more preoccupied with people in despair (in sublime emotions) whereas Morris is satisfied more often with satire and the self-deception of his subjects. I enjoyed Tabloid but it is arguably more exploitive than Catfish, because its protagonist is not given a moment to shine and break free of the ridicule of the style, whereas in Catfish Angela gets several moments to bare her soul and we have to confront it head on, there is no winking at the audience, the filmmakers just let the camera keep rolling. Similarly, Herzog does this in his films too, and while the accusation of exploitation surrounds a lot of his films too, Grizzly Man, Enigma of Kaspar, Land of Silence and Darkness, he is willing to show the characters in the service of something poignant, they are made high art not carnival fare. It is this context I guess that I see in Catfish, this willingness to embrace the sorrow and overcome any novelty to it… Angela doesn't feel like a circus freak, she is just a deeply troubled individual that has taken on a quixotic existence, she is Don Quixote not some bag lady on Jerry Springer. There is a difference. Herzog is finding Quixote in his subjects, and would therefore respond to Catfish positively, whereas I think Morris is more about ideas than people, people are an ends to a means… with Herzog they can be an end unto themselves.

Jay C.
Guest

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My review (CONTAINS SPOILERS):

http://www.thedocumentaryblog.com/index.php/2010/

I've listed Catfish as a literal guilty pleasure. It was an engaging theatrical experience but I don't think it's as deep as some make it out to be. I also still don't entirely see the Herzog connection. While I agree with some of your comments on Herzog and Morris, I don't think it applies to Catfish. The film is, at it's heart, just a mystery. If this story were in the hands of a filmmaker like Herzog, I doubt Angela's story would be used as 'twist ending' fodder. She also wouldn't be made an example of but rather celebrated.

rot
Guest

I guess I would rephrase it, not that Catfish is like a Herzog film stylistically but substantively I think Herzog would enjoy where the story goes in the end. The ending stops being a twist with at least another 20 minutes to stew in the Angela story, and thats the stuff that goes beyond the mandates of mystery into something that probes deeper into the human psyche.

rot
Guest

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So having read your review I have a few comments. If you believe the blurb at the end of the movie, 'Meghan' and Nev had shared some 100k plus messages, talked on the phone for over nine months… I don't think its unrealistic that over that span of time a genuine infatuation could develop. I would say a weakness of the documentary is how little they spend showing that in the film, it would make the moment where he finds out the song is fraudulent more disconcerting. That moment in the story occurs when they are in Colorado, so x months into the relationship and already potentially on their way to meeting up with Meghan. The unraveling of the romance comes fairly quick from then on in. Could they have made some phone calls and more google searches and figure it out remotely? Sure, but they were making a documentary, it doesn't seem much of stretch for them to want to keep the mystery alive a bit longer until they reach there in person. My understanding in the timeline is it was a matter of days since the revelation about the song.

Irrespective of what may be happy aspects to Angela's life from your perspective, Angela makes it pretty clear in more than one scene that she feels trapped. I don't see that as Nev and the filmmakers putting words in her mouth or distorting her life to serve an aesthetic purpose. She is the one that calls the kids full-on retarded, she is the one that says she gave up her career and she wasn't aware how much she gave up of her life to live there.

I thought the way they confronted her was as humane as one could do it (should they have kept up the delusion, if they had she wouldn't have bonded with Nev the way she was able to while drawing him). I suppose the real ethical question is should they have released the film at all, and the answers to that are hard to say (I didn't see the 20/20 interview). Like I said before, I think it shows Angela to be a real person, with deep complexity, emotional and psychological problems, sure, but she was able to express herself on camera in a way that hit me in a way I can understand. Loneliness is a universal emotion.

I don't think the film is all that manipulative… I think the events as they were happening were real, and then when edited together they served the purpose of prolonging the mystery but not distorting it. You see Nev put the postcard in the mailbox before he leaves for Colorado and you see him retrieve it in at the farm, the timeline seems pretty consistent just at times conflated for expediency more so than deception.

rot
Guest

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Also I believe Nev when he says he wasn't foolishly duped, he just had no reason to doubt Meghan. If I was in his situation I think I would act the same way, there was a whole network of friends created on facebook to make Meghan seem real, he had more than one person on the phone acknowledging she exists, why would he doubt her? Maybe I am naive too but is this sort of thing a regular occurrence?

Kurt
Guest

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"Also I believe Nev when he says he wasn’t foolishly duped, he just had no reason to doubt Meghan."

That is the line of the movie for me. This far into the 20th century, post-watergate, 9/11, 2008 Economy meltdown, etc. we are still a rather naive bunch, and we should be aware of it, not egotistically celebrate our 'modern living' compared to the gullible past….

rot
Guest

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Do any of us really google acquaintances we make online? In the case of Nev, he had so much evidence on the surface to believe she was real there wasn't a need to cross-reference… if its naive to expect one person did not create 10 fictional characters on a facebook page to have them all interact with one another, and put on different voices on a phone, than call me naive. I think someone who goes to the trouble to fact-check are paranoid and you have about as much chance of having a Catfish event as being hit by a car. Its not like Nev was a celebrity or an inside man at a bank.

And the filmmakers started with the Abby story (the first scene establishes that, its about Abby, no mention of Meghan)… if you go chronologically with what they are filming it seems quite natural that at each point they wouldn't know what is about to happen… in an hour and a half compressed it seems obvious, but over 9 months of slow boil, its like the frog that doesn't know he is being cooked. The documentary was something that only took shape with the prospect of meeting the online girl, I have to expect that before then it was filming for the sake of filming, the people involved had their own lives, and this wasn't a 24 hour surveillance, brainstormed project.

Andrew James
Admin

Rot, I think I mentioned something similar in the show. About how this takes place over the course of month(s) and makes perfect sense to me. Maybe I'm easily duped as well, but the way it's told I didn't really question the believability of the relationship at all. It would be interesting to see a lot more of the footage that was edited out. Or to somehow watch the full month or two of relationship building in compressed time.

rot
Guest

I am hoping the dvd, if it is true, has a lot of extra footage to further cement their case. I know in my life I have friendships that are purely online and it has never occurred to me to see if they are who they say they are. Its easier to be skeptical within the context of a documentary that is a cautionary tale, of course you are going to be hyper-aware, but I just don't think the average person is paranoid enough to question.

Kurt Halfyard
Admin

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I found the 20/20 interview to be rather un-enlightening to the further investigations of Catfish, Nev and Angela, but it is REALLY icky in that the filmmakers (Nev included) play a trick on the model (and her husband) who Angela stole as the pictures of Megan. They lure her to new york on the guise that they are making a documentary on photography, so as to not 'spoil' the 'instantaneous emotion' of discovering her images have been stolen. I am not sure how I feel about that sort of tactic.

Andrew James
Admin

So she didn't know she's in the movie or any of this has happened?

rot
Guest

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Well she was going to find out one way or the other… going on the belief that Nev really was infatuated with the idea of Meghan, that has got to be a pretty weird encounter. I wonder if the filmmakers ever did a Q&A at one of the premiere, it would be pretty sweet, no awkward silences there.

Kurt Halfyard
Admin

The Q&A at Sitges was a tad awkward with Henry Joost and Ariel Shulman, but that was mainly due to a gaffe in that the programmer didn't make it clear to the audience afterwards that there would be a Q&A afterwards, then the filmmakers started asking questions of the audience to see if they enjoyed the film (There was a fairly stunned silence at the end of the screening). Then the audience were more interested in the technical aspects of the cameras used during the sequences when things were hidden. There was a question of interest regarding at what point Angela was told she was being filmed, but it never probed deeper than that, probably due to the translating between Spanish/English. I asked a question regarding when Andrew Jarecki came on board and how, but the answer was more telling the Spanish audience who Andrew Jarecki was and simply that he came on board after the Sundance screening. I spoke afterwards regarding the current line of fake/fake-ish documentaries and the perception of Catfish with Henry Joost, but it was just on the street as the theatre was getting out, and I had to go find my wife who was at another movie, so had only a few brief minutes, and couldn't really get into detail, other than that the filmmakers have primarily been dealing with accusations of "FAKE" on the internet since Sundance.

Jay C.
Guest

Not sure which post this conversation is mainly taking place, so I'll post this in both:

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Just to clarify, I'm not claiming that I 100% don't believe the events in the film. I'm simply skeptical about how everything unfolded. It very well could have happened the way it's presented. I just like the fact that it creates conversation that challenges the expectations and conventions of non-fiction filmmaking. To put it into religious terms, I'm a Catfish Agnostic rather than Atheist. That said:

"If there is evidence of the filmmakers toying with Angela and playing up the infatuation I would be interested to hear about it… I don’t see it."

Well if there was any true evidence we wouldn't be having this conversation. My thoughts (along with many others) are simply based off of the experience of watching the film and thinking about the chain of events that took place. The question is less about why this guy would believe these people and follow through on this relationship but rather why would they film it?

You say that Nev's trust in Meghan and her family isn't unusual because he was given enough time and information to never really assume anything was wrong. This scenario might be easier to swallow if they weren't making a film about it. Based on this perspective, they're investing their time and money into a project that seemed to have very little potential. If we're supposed to believe that their film was originally intended to be a portrait of an online relationship (be it a romantic one with Meghan or a friendly one with Abby) do you really think that a team of filmmakers would jump right into shooting this story with little to no information on whether or not Abby is actually the great artist they think she is? There had to be an initial point of interest that made them decide to take this project on. Was it a child painter they knew NOTHING about? Or an internet relationship (boring) from one perspective? I would love to see them try and sell THAT idea to a potential investor. If you were going to shoot a documentary on a subject, shouldn't one of the first steps be some background research? Perhaps to prepare a pitch to a potential distributor or investor? How about securing permission from the subjects so that you don't spend five months filming something that will ultimately be canned because the "people" on the other end of the msn chat window won't be willing to take part? ESPECIALLY when dealing with the participation of a child. They had many opportunities to get this information from the conversations they had with Abby's mother, but instead Nev simply fed the 'relationship' (remember, it seems as though it's not until late in the 'confrontation' does Angela discover they'd been making a film this entire time).

If you guys are saying this budding relationship had gone on for MONTHS, don't you think that from a filmmaking perspective, the director's are missing an EXTREMELY important piece of their film? Meghan's side of the story! You're telling me at no point did they say to themselves "You know what? We're doing this film on an internet relationship and all we have is some footage of our friend in his apartment talking on the phone with this girl. What kind of film will this make? WE NEED TO FILM MEGHAN." Same thing applies to Abby. All of these conversations on the phone with Angela and they never asked if they can come out and interview them? No Skype video chat? Come on. All of the effort put into documenting Nev and they never thought they would require anything other than him talking on a phone in his apartment or office? THAT is the kind of logic that I find hard to swallow. If this film didn't take the turn that it took, it wouldn't be a film at all. Yet the guys behind the camera (and Nev) pushed forward the entire time, as though they knew something we didn't. It's a little hard to swallow.

Regarding Nev requesting that Angela speak like Meghan: still don't see it as anything other than a moment for the camera at the expense of Angela. In fact, that whole scene of her drawing him is too heavy handed for my taste. Outside of that, I wasn't totally turned off by their interaction with Angela. They were very polite and respectful. I think as you'd mentioned before, the true issue is whether or not the film should've been released at all. I don't think it's something that should've been buried, but I do feel like the presentation of everything (the marketing, the narrative structure) was in favour of creating a mystery first over exploring the psychological nature of Angela and other people like her online. The film succeeds in that regard. It was an engaging and sometimes thrilling viewing experience. I just don't think it gets much deeper than that. Certainly not as deep as some of you guys are making it out to be. For me, Catfish played more like a film about some New York filmmakers who got duped rather than a film about a struggling artist who finds solace from reality online.

P.S. Taping the coin to the postcard seemed like a pre-determined strategic piece of 'marking' in order to make it easier for the audience to immediately identify the two pieces of mail as being the same.

Dan O.
Guest

The film begs lots of questions about how, and when, it became clear any of this was worth documenting, but it certainly was. I still don’t know whether this was real or not, but despite that all, I was still interested while watching this. Good review, check out mine when you can!

Ms Curious
Guest

Dano, where is your review exactly? Do you have a link you can post? You appear on here today, but the last post on this blog/thread whatever you call it was 22 October 2010. Please feel free to join the blog: Catfish/hoax doco also here on Row Three it’s more recent…though it does get a bit too much into detail at times.

Manti Te'o
Guest

Oh, wrong site!

Jonathan
Guest

Ba-dum-ching.

Matt Brown
Admin

Solid. Solid.

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