The film Catfish, released last Friday, seems like a target for criticism and for snap, visceral reactions. With its social-networking plot floating in a realm between pure fact and pure fiction, it’s the film of the moment, even if it’ll make less money than The Social Network, which is to be about Facebook’s creation (or even than Easy A, which could have been pitched as Clueless with 3G reception). It makes text what most of cinema is only beginning to make subtext: the way we use the Internet now, in a manner whose outlying cases are frightening but even whose baselines are hazily distanced from humanity, grasping back towards connection.
Catfish, for those who have only just begun to follow its progress through the hype cycle and who, ahem, aren’t concerned about spoilers, follows a young man who receives a painted version of one of his published photographs in the mail, signed by an eight-year-old girl. He’s soon virtually enmeshed in a family that seems perfect: an attractive and nurturing pair of parents, a talented preteen artist with her own studio (not actually an artist!), and another daughter, a model-pretty horseback rider (not a real person!). The artist paints pictures of Nev from photos; the older daughter sings him songs. Nev and this family relate through fantasy (platonic or sexual) and through cultural product (paintings or songs). There’s little else online.
To anyone who bothers to consider that they’re watching a film, and that there must be some dramatic conflict, the twist is obvious: there’s a lie in here somewhere, a big one. (There was more chatter in this movie than any I’d seen in theaters recently, with moviegoers continually predicting exactly what would happen next, in lurid, gleeful tones.) Further, as noted on other blogs, it’s hardly news that social-network users lie. They – we – lie to impress, to keep the conversation going. I’m sure you know why! As does Nev, the male entangled with this mysterious family online. One of the film’s saddest moments is when he rereads aloud texts he sent the horseback rider he’d fallen in love with online, laughing, horrified. He cannot have been serious, he repeats. He maybe wasn’t!
What’s staggering about Catfish is not the lie at its center but that lie’s magnitude – its proliferation into a network of immensely time-consuming fabrications in a style that I only just learned, via Wikipedia, is called “sockpuppeting.” Its subject (a subject who emerges only once levels of artifice and her various characters are stripped away) is Angela, a woman who constructed an online family for herself, in order to draw the documentarians in, a ruse so successful that they were compelled to come and meet her in person. The decision to meet Angela in person (if it was not motivated simply by filmmaker’s instinct) is one that reveals Nev’s own socketpuppeting impulse – to Angela’s family, he imputes all sorts of hopes that only seem less desperate than Angela’s because he’s young and controls the means of production.
While as needy as Nev, Angela expresses that need in a different way – by creating false people, not documenting real ones. Angela is either mentally ill or some sort of genius, though that’s not a choice that the viewer necessarily must make. She has mastered a game that Nev is obviously intrigued by – making connections online. Who’s to say that the avatars she creates are any less real than Nev is, to her, or to us watching the film? She’s understimulated in her “real” life, a full-time mother who had dreams of art-world success; we watch her, at home with an unflatteringly edited, hayseed-y husband and two severely disabled children who must be medicated to prevent their flagellations. We see her as a good mother; we see her husband as unsatisfying, her daughter as a little girl and not an artist. It’s as believable as it was before; real life is, for Angela, an avatar she tries on.
She can’t explain why her boys beat themselves, again and again, but to say “They’re just really retarded.” Nor can she explain her own nightly construction of a world in an attempt to make Nev a part of her life. One presumes she’d rather he’d never have shown up, that he’d stayed a happy connection made in her life as an author of fiction, the one character she could not predict in her life or her Facebook. The film tells us –leaving the rest of the film’s depiction of conversation aside in favor of a deus ex machinastatus update – that Nev and Angela stayed Facebook friends after her compulsive lying was revealed. How much can it mean to her, though, when he’s just another part of her unsatisfying life? She tries to paint a picture of the real Nev, again, but struggles mightily. In real life, she says, smiles shift and can’t be read. Nev’s face is easier when it’s onscreen, easily interpreted, flat – then she can create it, as everything else, in her own way.