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True Lies

By Brian Prisco | Film | September 23, 2010 |

By Brian Prisco | Film | September 23, 2010 |

DISCLAIMER: If you want to see Catfish, go see it, or ask that it be screened in your town. Telling you anything about this film is in reality a spoiler. If this were Rotten Tomatoes, and godwilling, as new members of the OFCS Daniel Carlson and I will soon be counted on the Tomatometer, I’d give it a Fresh rating, but probably tell you that it’s a little moldy.

I’m hesitant to write anything about Catfish, other than you should give it a gander. Addressing even the smallest part of the film seems like cheating the potential viewer. It was obviously designed to be a small secret documentary that snuck in through the back door of your mind and played all manner of games with your head. The entire project is meant as not the bottom-feeding titular fish, but rather a giant red herring to force you to ponder on various intriguing aspects of our internet culture. But we live in a world where everyone has to know every truth. Nobody can accept being deceived because it somehow makes them feel weak and vulnerable. I learned this from the fiery reaction to Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix’s cultural experiment. As people of the internet age, we don’t just have to yell “first,” we have to take smug comfort in solving the mystery. But sometimes, the point isn’t that the fucking kid sees dead people, the point is watching how the world reacts around him once you know. But nobody wants to be fooled anymore. What makes Catfish a terrific movie to me — and an infuriating cheat to everyone who expected it to be a cheesy horror film in the vein of Dee Snyder’s Strangeland — is letting yourself be sucked in by the story that’s unraveling. If you are so fucking anxious to prove to all five of your internet buddies that you figured it out ten minutes in, go pat yourself on the back until your break your fucking spine. The message at the heart of Catfish isn’t going to change your life or blow your mind, but it’s still a pretty nifty delivery method.

I’m not going to talk anymore about the film beyond the fact that the basic gist is this: two filmmakers (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman) decide to document Rel’s younger brother Nev Schulman, a photographer, who has started an internet exchange with an 8-year-old painter from Michigan who painted one of his photographs. Yes, something goes awry, and yes, they do decide to follow the trail of bread crumbs back to the loaf they fell from. But that’s precisely what makes something like Catfish interesting, is watching the process. It does not go where you would expect.

As filmmakers, Joost and Schulman aren’t revolutionary. What’s interesting to me, however, is that I can see them in the same vein as some of the mumblecore guys, particularly Josh and Benny Safdie (The Pleasure of Being Robbed, Daddy Longlegs). If anything, this is sort of a mumblecore Blair Witch, with all the flaws of both of those genres. It’s mostly a bunch of nerdy New Yorkers sitting around, fascinated by the process of their own thoughts and awash in the arrogance of their own perceived profundity. But, similar to why I liked The Freebie, their smug complacency is part of the point. Imagine instead if The Blair Witch was three hipsters wandering around the woods extolling how fucking fake everything was and how the Blair Witch was just bullshit propagated by a bunch of bored locals in order to stir up a tourist cottage industry for their podunk shittown. Now, Catfish doesn’t quite get so tight-rolled indierock as that, but you’re getting more of a feel for the film.

Knowing is part of the battle. I really enjoyed Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code when I first read it — not for the crappy dialogue or the stilted prose — but because I didn’t have any fucking idea about the whole Jesus Bloodline and the theory of the Holy Grail. So it was interesting as all hell to me and made me go out and do a bunch of research and read a bunch of books, to the point I was pointing out to my brother why there were vampires in the Matrix videogame and why Vincent Cassel’s character was called The Merovingian. Conversely, I didn’t care for the documentary Food, Inc, because it was recycling material from two books I had already read. If you didn’t know all that shit, it’d be fucking mind-blowing, which is why I didn’t fault people who watched it and had their eyes suddenly opened. My eyes were already open. Welcome to the fucking dollhouse. And for others, they couldn’t give a damn about some fancy theory about slaughterhouses being bad and Jesus getting married to a whore. They take the blue pill every time, and this is why Glenn Beck has a best seller.

Catfish doesn’t have a delicious candy secret at its core. Oh, gee, you mean people lie about themselves on the internet and Facebook and in chat rooms? We all know the internet will rape you and steal your lunch money and then murder your kids. We’ve been rescued by Chris Hansen. But this film is not about the how, it’s about the why. And then it’s about the how. But for some folks, they’ll be pissed because they just wanted to see Captain Howdy torturing Freaks and Geeks or the Blair Witch hiding some kid in a corner. It’s so much worse than that — both in satiating your satisfaction and in the cruel reality of what actually goes down. It won’t freak you out like someone jumping out from behind a bush and yelling real loud, rather it’ll freak you out like a warm thick liquid being thrown in your face and a little in your mouth. That kind of unclean, uncomfortable, unnerving disgust.