Catfish is not being served well by its marketing team. That it is a documentary with a marketing campaign, however limited, is remarkable, but the horrible job they are doing is sure to attract an audience expecting something completely different from what they will get. Expecting a creepy mystery/thriller, the audience, drawn by the ads full of ominous music and warnings not to tell anyone the secret a la Psycho, is bound to be disappointed. They, of course, will turn around and tell all their friends how boring it is, etc. And the movie’s natural audience is almost sure to be put off by the clear attempt to make it look like the next Blair Witch Project. Catfish is surprising (only because of the marketing) in that it a more thoughtful and poignant exploration of relationships in our era of Facebook, instant messaging, and texting, where we can develop relationships without ever actually meeting face to face.
There really is no big secret in the movie; it’s pretty clear what is going on well before our suspicions are confirmed. I won’t give it away (and, yes, by not telling I will be participating in the ridiculous marketing campaign by pretending there is a big twist), but I’ll lay out the background. See if you can’t figure it out.
A couple of years ago New York photographer Nev Schulman received a package in the mail from an 8-year-old artist named Abby from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Abby sent Nev a picture she painted based on one of his published photographs. Nev was impressed with her work and soon became Facebook friends with the young girl, her mother Angela, her father Vince, and her older, 19-year-old sister Megan. He continued to receive paintings from Abby and had long conversations on the phone about the budding artist with her mother Angela. To make things juicier, Nev kindled a cyber-romance with Megan, exchanging pictures, talking on the phone and texting back and forth late into the night. Nev tells us he knows he will not really know if Megan is the girl for him until they meet, but we can see he has high hopes. She has already won a place in his heart.
Somewhere along the way Nev’s brother Rel and his partner Henry Joost became interested in this long distance relationship Nev was having with Megan and her Michigan family. Being filmmakers they picked up cameras and began filming Nev’s end of the relationship. It is never clearly explained exactly why they thought this was worth filming (which is why the picture is a suspected phony doc like last year’s Paranormal Activity or street artist Banksy’s critique of the art world Exit through the Gift Shop), but we know that there must be something more to this story than we have been lead to believe. Why else would we be watching it?
The commercials prepare us for something creepy, something scary. I waited for the violent climax when Nev, Rel and Henry journeyed to Michigan for a surprise visit to Megan and her entire family after Nev realized there were cracks in her story. Instead I got something subjectively worse: emotional violence. Martin Scorsese has called The Age of Innocence his most violent movie. Not the obvious violence of broken bones and split lips from which one can heal in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, or Goodfellas, but the insidiousness of emotional repression that eats away at souls and destroys relationships. Catfish is a similarly brutal movie, though it doesn’t wallow in its dysfunction. Lucky for us, once the truth comes out, everyone is civil and they quietly grope around for understanding despite the emotional shell-shock. Getting to that point though is the nail-biter.
There has been some criticism, most notably from A.O. Scott of the New York Times, that the filmmakers have exploited Angela, the woman at the center of everything, essentially acting as snarky big city know-it-alls sneering at this less educated, rural woman (and he liked the movie). If anything, the humiliation goes both ways; Nev doesn’t come off as a bright guy. (What adult Photoshops a picture of himself with one of a woman he never met?) What Angela was getting out of their relationship is fairly obvious, but Nev was also looking for something he wasn’t finding in this increasingly disconnected, non-personal world. He found his connection, as so many others do, on the internet, on Facebook. A better movie would have fully explored why Nev and Angela connected, what they found in each other that they didn’t find in Michigan or New York. Or, to be more ambitious, why is it so much easier for us to meet people online now than it is to meet real people, face to face, without the comforting anonymity of cyber-filters.
The marketing campaign is reducing this sad story to a cheap thriller. Abby’s mother Angela turns out to be a lonely, frustrated woman who opens her heart and bears all her humiliations for their camera. She isn’t a villain; she is a woman who dreams of something more than she has and the internet allows her the opportunity to participate in a life out of reach in rural Michigan. But by reducing her troubles and embarrassments to a goofy mystery, the distributor is truly exploiting her in ways that Nev, Rel and Henry never intended.
But the marketing appears to be working. It is now in 57 theaters around the country and has grossed over $800,000. These are impressive numbers for a low budget documentary. There are, however, still lots of pissed off ticket buyers griping on message boards because it wasn’t what the ads lead them to expect. They did, however, go see it. That’s something. Hopefully enough of them recognized that this movie deserves more respect than the shoddy filmmaking and misleading marketing suggest and they take some time to think about what we are missing when we replace an actual phone call with a text and depend on Facebook instead of real world interaction to cultivate our relationships.