Bright Lights Film Journal

Catfish: A New Medium for a Motif

Note: this review discusses major plot points but doesn’t reveal the surprising turn. Much of what is discussed below can be found in the promotional material.

Catfish opens in Philadelphia this weekend, at the Ritz East, 125 South 2nd Street. On Saturday, September 25, the filmmakers will be present for Q&As after the following screenings: 3:15pm, 5:30pm, 7:45pm, 10:00pm.

The new (pseudo?)documentary Catfish directly addresses the age of online networking, in which much of our communication happens virtually. But in form and content, the film works off the genre of the con game. (This may sound like a spoiler, but a con will come to mind as soon as the plot begins.) In this style, an innocent protagonist – usually powerful but naïve, at times wanting to be liked – meets up with a confidence (wo)man. The con man provides an illusion for the soon-to-be victim, which promises more power to him by feeding his need for it. As a filmmaker, David Mamet has mastered different tellings of the con game (earlier, he used con-men protagonists to dig into the psyches of his stage characters). The protagonists are victims in his films House of Games (with the backdrop of a secretive network of card scammers), The Spanish Prisoner (using a stolen business system to make the victim into a fugitive), and most recently, Redbelt, which brings the con to the world of sports entertainment.

Mamet has said that none of us are immune to conning, since we are all human, and hence want to be liked and believe the illusion. A networking system like Facebook is a cunning source of illusions – its multiple means of communication bring us close to others, if still behind a wall of technology. Hardly a new discovery – the first users of Friendster and AOL instant messager thrilled at the new masks they could don – Facebook maximizes the means of communication, with various forms. A conman has more than a face-to-face pitch at his disposal- he now can reach his mark through email messages, video, audio streams, along with instant messages.

Catfish‘s protagonist/victim, Nev, is intrigued when he receives a painting of a photo he published. The material arriving in the mail is a product of “reality” beyond the virtual world’s media. As the purported work of a child, the painting captures Nev, and soon he’s communication with the girl’s mother, Angela, via Facebook. The filmmakers, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who appear onscreen along with Nev (Ariel is his brother), incorporate digital gimmicks like zooming virtual maps to reflect encounters through virtual communication. Yet, Nev’s response to his talks with Angela, then Megan, whose photos look effortlessly of model quality, better show how the virtual world affects us.

The films hinges on Nev, its focal point, who also owns the bulk of screen time. His shaggy-photographed talking head commentary, if informal, is so confident and focused that we cannot help but think it rehearsed. The path that Catfish follows has much verity, especially when it leads to the strange and profound final territory. The film nets us into the purgatory of documentary verity, what Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop so effectively uses. Still, the film’s Nev seems constructed for the screen. I’d guess that, instead of documenting Nev’s story as it happened, the filmmakers thought through where they were going, then prepared and filmed Nev, in takes, to capture the potential of each scene. Perhaps some takes were filmed after the fact.

This point hardly matters to the film’s excellent use of the con-game genre. Nev is rapt by his new relationship, also thinking that he has inherited her family members as friends. The illusion brings about his fantasy, as it would for anyone letting down his guard to a promising-on-the-surface hookup thereabouts, or on a dating site. But, as most would, Nev soon doubts, when Megan passes off an audio clip as her own, a bit of hubris weakening the con. From here, the con is obvious, and Nev with filmmakers head to her home to unveil it.

The final narrative movement, which I don’t want to spoil, lets the early part of the film rest as the weaker premise that it is. (It also reveals the profound conceit behind the film’s curious title.) The truth behind the con makes the victim a student to a humbling experience.