Below is a possible explanation (based on inisder knowledge!) for the air of bullshit that arrives with the new "documentary" Catfish. Also, I spoil the entire film. Ha.
Never underestimate the power of the visceral reaction. It's underrated in criticism, where rationale and/or rationalizing are much more important drivers, but it may be key to understanding Catfish, a new film whose tagline positions it as "not based on a true story, not inspired by true events, just true." (Meanwhile, as if setting the tone of dishonesty before you even enter the theater, its trailer, leads you to believe that it is a thriller, but it is nothing of the sort.) The film concerns the 22-year-old Nev Schulman, who is supposedly on constant surveillance by his filmmaking brother, Ariel, and his business partner, Henry Joost (together Ariel and Henry own the film-production company Supermarché and directed this movie). Within the opening seconds of the film, it just feels wrong. Immediately, there is something supremely douchey about Nev. He stares into the camera with the fraudulently pompous air of a dude in a bar who's desperately out to impress with his yammering and cool-guy vibe. There are subtle things like his perma-smile and far-off look that make everything he says seem contrived. It is an Internet cliche to immediately dismiss something as, "FAKE!" and yet that is the first thing I wrote down while watching this movie. If Catfish had arms, it would constantly be touching its neck.
Judge Judy has an arsenal of phrases she barks at people: "'Um' is not an answer!" is probably the most frequent one, but, "If it doesn't make sense, it isn't true," is the most useful. A lot of Catfish doesn't make sense. New York City resident Nev starts receiving paintings from an 8-year-old phenom from Michigan named Abby (she reaches out to him initially because a photo of his in that appeared in the New York Sun inspired her painted response). The inherent creepiness of a 22-year-old guy corresponding with an 8-year-old female stranger is barely considered. However, in gentle response to potential inappropriateness, Nev does begin corresponding with Abby's mother, Angela, who eventually informs him that Abby's gallery shows have resulted in her paintings selling for thousands of dollars. It takes Nev months to even begin to investigate such claims. Maybe his Google button is broken. In the meantime, Nev embarks on a full-on Internet-only affair with Abby's 19-year-old sister, Megan. He jumps into this heedlessly, without any introspection or questioning from others regarding why a reasonably attractive 22-year-old should need to begin a romantic relationship with a complete stranger halfway across the country via a medium that conducts lies so easily. He relies on this girl's weird, downscale modeling photos on Facebook, instant messages, texts and phone conversations as proof of her existence, apparently never going elsewhere to look her up. Or her mother. Or her phenom sister.
I saw where this was going as soon as he started talking to Megan (well, I actually thought Megan would turn out to be a dude, but I knew something was up immdiately, as would anyone). What took me a split second to realize apparently took Nev nine months, because it isn't until he's traveling close enough to Michigan to make meeting Megan an actual possibility that he begins checking out the claims of her and her family. Within a few minutes, he finds that they are almost entirely bogus (it starts with him discovering that songs she sent him supposedly performed by her are the works of other artists -- Google button fixed?). When he finally makes the trip to Angela's house, he finds that Angela is nowhere near the MILF she claimed to be in her pictures, Abby is not a painter and Megan is nowhere to be found because she doesn't exist. So begins a half hour of wringing the truth out of Angela, who lives what most urbanites would deem a bleak existence in the middle of nowhere with her bumpkin husband. She spends her days taking care of her two mentally challenged stepsons, who are so violent that they must be medicated and restrained so that they do not hurt themselves. Angela slowly spins her tale of seeking refuge in alternate identities via the Internet (a story, by the way, that was already getting tired in 1995 -- that this is the crux of Catfish should tell you how unnecessary this film would be even if it were entirely true). As Angela shares her pathetic method of escape, Nev nods and grins and plays the understanding friend the entire time. He never once shows any anger for being taken for a ride or any palpable disappointment for the woman of his dreams turning out to be an invention. We are supposed to believe that this guy is such a saint, he can withstand months of deception on pure compassion alone.
A friend of mine who's a friend of someone who worked on this film (and yes, that's a disclaimer -- take this with the same grain of salt you would any other non-attributed rumor) has a theory as to what really happened here. I post it mainly because I find it to be a satisfying explanation of Catfish's pervasive nonsense. My friend told me that he thinks that since the Schulmans and Joost do posses actual brains (despite what you seen on screen), they were in on this from the start. They knew they were being taken for a ride and were willing to hop on and play along (without letting Angela know what they knew) for the sake of filmmaking. There is a sharp contrast in tone between the pre-Angela portion of the film and the parts where Angela shares her misery. As a gentle wretch, she seems like the realest thing there. (Although her husband, who provides the title in a moment of redneck clarity when he describes the packing of catfish in shipments of cod to keep the latter fish agile and delicious -- "I thank God for catfish, because we'd be droll, boring and dull if we didn't have someone nipping at our fin" -- seems as fake as anything, so hmmmm.) It is my friend's opinion that Catfish is real in as much that it is a documentary about catching someone in the act, spun as a sensitive meditation on human connection and identity.0. In this light, it is, at least, grossly disengenuous. If in fact they did exploit this woman's pathetic and intricate attempt at escape (she created a network of friends on Facebook for Abby, Megan and herself to corroborate her lies) without fully revealing their knowledge or intentions, they're even douchier than Nev's initial behavior suggested. An eye for an eye is one thing; an eye for a camera lens is another.
Interestingly, my friend also tells me that Angela initially was on board with promoting the movie, and then changed her mind and attempted to sue them. I do not know the nature of her proposed charges (or, again, if this is even true), but becoming angry after uncovering deceit and wanting to take action seems a much more human response than anything Nev does the entire time he's on screen.
Since Catfish caused a rapturous stir at Sundance, there has been a growing murmur regarding the veracity of the supposed doc (actually, adding to the confusion, it's being sold as a "reality thriller"). Even at the festival itself, at least one person sensed that something wasn't right. In January, Movieline posted an account of a Q&A that was quickly cut off (telling!) when an audience member suggested that what he had just seen was a "faux documentary." The defensive chortling Ariel Schulman directed at that guy is almost word-for-word what he's gone on to tell Rebecca Milzoff in her story about the film that ran in New York this week: "So my brother is the best actor since Brando, and we’re the best writers in Hollywood?" Actually, the answer is no on all counts. And that's the problem.