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Catfish (2010)

February 4, 2011

One of the fastest growing aspects of today’s culture is the still very fresh world of social networking. While this idea and form of communication is not particularly new, there is a depth, both sociologically and psychologically, that is only being further intensified as this medium becomes more and more a part of society. This year we witnessed a dramatized, but captivating and effective portrayal of the groundbreaking birth of Facebook in David Fincher’s The Social Network. Mark Zuckerberg rose to the top in a short matter of time because the American, and eventually the global youth completely ate up the concept of Facebook. However, the likely Best Picture winner of the year cuts at Facebook’s rise to rule, leaving the door open to all of the possibilities Zuckerberg created.

The ambiguity of Facebook’s long-term effects and evolution is picked up shortly after Fincher’s film with the documentary Catfish. In Manhattan, Two filmmakers launch a film on their friend and office mate who has found himself in an internet relationship, but not just with a girl, but with a network of people in Michigan. A ‘Facebook family’ as he refers to them in the beginning. A young girl who paints pictures and sends them to him, her supportive and attractive mother, and primarily, her 19-year old half-sister with whom Nev (the film’s protagonist) becomes involved with romantically—online. Ariel and Henry, the filmmakers, embark on this exceedingly personal and mysterious adventure in documenting Nev’s relationship/investigation with this family in Michigan.

Summarizing the plot can really only be done to that point. As the trailer eludes, Nev’s long-distance relationship takes some mysterious turns and results in a completely shocking finale. However, the trailer also leads Catfish into the territory of possibly being in line with films like Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch Project where this handy-cam shot experiment takes a horrific turn. In many ways, Catfish does share elements with those films. Suspense, mystery, eeriness, and discomfort all play substantial roles in the film, but as far expectations go for the film’s final act, anything should be game. For the end results of this film do leave a somewhat horrifying world of possibilities, but nonetheless, and emotionally thick portrait of a new reality in today’s culture.

The biggest topic of discussion with Catfish, as with most experimental documentaries (i.e the brilliant Exit Through the Gift Shop), is the authenticity of the film. What was staged? What, if anything, wasn’t staged? Were things added in or reshot later on? There are certainly a string of elements that are either hard to line up perfectly, or are left particularly ambiguous. Watching a DVD, I had the opportunity to follow the film with a pretty in-depth interview segment with the three filmmakers, who all stand strong in claiming complete truth. A true skeptic would go as far as to question the authenticity of even such interviews, which is understandable after stunts like I’m Still Here.

But in the matter of Catfish, the reality or truth behind everything on screen is rather irrelevant. Being a true-to-life documentary would surely add that aspect to the idea of the film, but without that, the film stands alone in its point and message, displayed creatively with the powerful utilization of not only Facebook, but Google Maps and YouTube. Catfish provides a much-needed angle into the world we now live in, where that road is going, and how heavy the impact of social networking really is on society. As the filmmakers put it, Catfish is, in a sense, like a Facebook profile: presented to the world in the most carefully crafted but intentionally honest fashion. Whether that is true or not, is up to us, but ultimately a mystery.

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