Saturday, January 29, 2011

Catfish, storytelling, and why film criticism sucks right now.

Spoilers. And a lot of people watching this movie try to avoid them.

"“Catfish” flops down into this paradoxical reality and proceeds to generate some complications of its own. Judged by the usual standards, it is a wretched documentary: visually and narratively sloppy; coy about its motives; slipshod in its adherence to basic ethical norms. The filmmakers, who occasionally appear on camera, shoot and edit with at least minimal competence, but their approach to the potentially volatile and undeniably exploitive implications of their stumbled-upon story is muddled and defensive. Shame on them, if that would mean anything to them." -- AO Scott's NY Times Review.

Nev Shulman's photocomposite of himself and fictional girl Megan, who is actually a model by a different name in real life. 

The critical discussion about Catfish is extremely boring to me. In the same way that websites 'debunking' Inception are boring. It's like critics have to go back to the very basics of storytelling to show people why Inception is a bad movie. And all anyone can talk about is whether Catfish is real or not, or if its supposed 'formal incompetence' negates the story it tells. Inception inspired total ambivalence in me, but I was actually quite taken with Catfish. I had a great environment, though: I didn't know much about the movie, I didn't read about it beforehand, the theater was packed and receptive, and the filmmakers spoke afterwards, shining light on some parts of the film that could have used more illumination. If the film is fake then they are very good at lying in public. But who gives a shit if it's 'real' or 'well-made' or not? Or, better to ask why give a shit?

Seth drawing himself drawing a fictional cartoonist's work in his comic novel It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken

Unfortunately I think the answer to that question is the sad reality of filmmaking right now: there's not a lot of experimentation going on. As I mentioned in my previous post, I can count the number of really form-pusing movies I've seen since I started this blog on one hand, and most of them are foreign. I'm not necessarily saying that superficial films lead to superficial criticisms, but neither is helping the other. 

So, you have a film like Catfish that blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction a little bit, since the Schulman brothers seem to have stumbled across a real-life 'thriller.' Lately documentaries have started taking on the structures of fictional films -- an easy example is "The Cove," which is structured like a heist movie -- but Catfish is slightly different. While the people in "The Cove" initiate the story (they decide to sneak in and film the titular inlet), the people in Catfish apparently were pulled into a story that existed without them. Sure the boys go and pay a midnight visit to Megan's farm, and thus generate more events to be filmed, but that's half way through the movie. For the first half, they are just cataloguing their surface interaction with Angela's already-assembled web of Facebook personalities. I guess it's like the difference between making a basketball from scratch (The Cove) and finding a basketball on the ground, picking it up and playing with it (Catfish). I guess the 'playing with it' part is what makes A.O. Scott think they are borderline unethical or filming with a "patronizing, pitying gaze." Please.

All of this is to say: I kind of wish it were fake. It would be equally interesting to me in a different way than it is now. As I said, documentaries usually take on the structure of a fictional film, but all too rarely do they experiment with fictional elements woven in as a piece of the narrative (I can only think of a few, and they are probably bad examples, so I'll let you come up with your own). And since this doesn't happen much or at all in major-distribution documentaries, critics and audience alike have an adverse reaction to the possibility of 'fakery.' "Is it all true? How can it be? I don't believe it!"and on and on. 

But comic books have been going in this direction for years. In Seth's autobiographical comic It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken, he and friend / real-life cartoonist Chester Brown stumble across a cartoonist from the 1950's named Kalo while reading through old magazines at pawn shops (cartoonists do this a lot, apparently). Seth can't find any more of Kalo's work, and so starts trying to track the guy down to give his wandering life some direction. Only, after Good Life had been out for a couple of years, Seth revealed that Kalo was totally made up, completely fictional. Even better, this revelation prompted cartoonist Eddie Campbell to quietly kill off his fictional cartoonist that he was trying to pass off as real in his fictional book, Bacchus. How I wish this formal play and artistic interaction would happen more in the film world. 

Can you imagine documentaries with fictional characters, or fictional films with strictly documentary sequences (instead of just documentary aspects like camera work or 'interviews' with characters), or even better (!) fictional characters popping up in both a written film and a documentary directed by different people? Very few filmmakers even play with this idea, while prose and comics are miles ahead in their experimentation. 

Real photo of funeral for Bunny Gibson, fictional cartoonist. That's Campbell next to the priest.

But alas, I'm pretty sure Catfish is real. So the discussion becomes, as Shawn so aptly summed up, 'Yeah, it's badly made, but what about the cultural implications.' The title of Scott's article? "The World Where You Aren't What You Post." I don't mean to pick on Scott's review, but his is a nice encapsulation of what I think is wrong with the discussion of Catfish in particular, and what's wrong with film criticism, scholarly and otherwise, on the whole. I've read about a dozen Catfish reviews, and they all fall into the same traps. Ebert's begins, "Here's one way to look at "Catfish." Some filmmakers in New York City, who think they're way cool, get taken apart by a ordinary family in Ishpeming, Mich. You can also view it as a cautionary tale about living your emotional life on the Internet. Or possibly the whole thing is a hoax. "As if the most important thing we should take away from this film is that, yes, internet fraud happens. This, to me, is just as boring as the true / hoax stuff. 

Ariel Schulman filming Nev Schulman with a painting of himself by Abby Pierce, fictional daughter of Angela Pierce

So what is Catfish, if not all of these superficial explanations? I think it is two things, one for the filmmakers and one for the audience. While most reviews note how cool or entitled the filmmakers think they are, I think it's a pretty bare-bones and ballsy depiction of their own naivete and superficiality. Critics seem to take this with negative connotation, but while watching it I was struck by the thought that this is a document of their lives, at this young age, for only them to come back to and laugh about, ponder over, reminisce and otherwise. This detail gets lost in all the talk about fakery, I think, and ironically those discussing the superficial elements of movie forget that those making the movie are actual people, flawed, presumptuous, superficial themselves, taken for a ride, involved in someone else's story. Like a home movie with a plot. But this is a filmmaker's perspective, and not necessarily for the audience to appreciate. 

The audience could see this movie as a documentation of a new form of storytelling: The Facebook novel. Or, better call it, the interactive novel. Megan / Angela, the woman Nev travels to meet, has basically utilized the internet for a fully fledged interactive storytelling experience, and the filmmakers were lucky enough to document their interaction with, and exploration of her world. In the Q+A after the film, the guys called Angela "The J.K. Rowling of the internet," because she created an online world complete with not only characters, but plot points accessible in the outside, 'real' world, all to fulfill her need for a creative outlet. Talk about experimenting with a medium. 

Here, though, is where the film fails. The craziest thing to me is that, sure, Angela created a bunch of Facebook profiles, gave them different roles to interact with Nev and uphold the facade, but the part that is the key to my interest isn't in the movie! Again during the Q+A, the filmmakers said that they printed out every bit of Facebook correspondence any of Angela's satellite characters had, and they found that the characters had been talking to one another. Do you follow me? This means that Angela, totally independent of Nev, was sending private messages to her characters in the voices of her other characters solely for her own artistic, creative, or personal fulfillment (whichever you prefer to call it). Nev, then, is not the protagonist here. He is not Michael Douglas in "The Game" in documentary-form. This film is instead a document of the cursory interaction three men's lives had with a totally self-contained fictional world one woman created. Which is a pretty impressively lucky thing to get on film. Doesn't it sound like a dream within a dream within a dream? Like we are in the film's world via Nev, via Angela, via Megan, via Abby, and on and on and on? Much like another movie I saw this year ... but I digress to superficiality. 

So, much like the film, my article might be an overlong journey to a relatively simple conclusion. But I felt it should be said, and any film that makes me think about the experimentation waiting to be done in any medium, film, comics, or otherwise, is worth a look. And I think as video games and LARPing and other crudely written or poorly executed storytelling mediums try to interact more with 'real life,' Catfish catalogues an instance where the story became more and more detached from its medium, until it finally broke and became completely real by the end of the film. Though what I call 'story' some critics might call 'hoax' or 'lies.' I will leave you with fictional cartoonist Bunny Gibson's posthumous appearance in Eddie Campbell's autobiographical masterwork, Alec


Shawn said...

It may not be an overlong article, because I'm still not sure I understand the pioneering creative achievements of this film. Indeed, many of my favorite films are a blending of either fiction and nonfiction or nonfiction and fiction (The Exiles, Killer of Sheep, On the Bowery, Germany in Autumn, Marjoe, My Dinner with Andre) and if there's an area of film that seems completely unilluminated in terms of unheralded artistic achievements, it's documentaries (Amos Vogel's Film as a Subversive Art makes me feel like I've never seen anything!). Or what about In the Realms of the Unreal, the recent Marwencol - those are movies about interacting fictional universes. '09's Dear Zachary was also a documentary created as it unfolded, and that was a much more dramatically dynamic game of basketball, sometimes as poorly made as Catfish! Catfish might have been the first to notice the potential for Harry Potter-like fantasy on Facebook, but as with you in your article, I'm more interested in film's prospect for entangled realities. I'm sure that later I'll remember other examples of films which employed the artistic devices of Catfish, but as for now my point is basically they didn't do anything new and if it's hard to notice this it's only because the film is such a goddamn mess.

And here I thought I was going to be able to voice my opinion on how poorly they treated their 'subjects,' which were more like victims in many senses I think.

Shawn said...

OH MY GOD KIAROSTAMI'S CLOSE-UP!! My blu-ray shelf practically kicked my ass for forgetting what must be the most confusing mixture of real-life and filmmaking ever. Where to even begin? You have either seen the film or know about it or can look it up, so I won't recap it myself, but I will say that out of many elements that blow my mind one in particular is the fact that Kiarostami held conference with the judge and suggested leniency, against the objections of the real-life victims. I mean, where to even begin? The film, on the chance you haven't seen it, doesn't reveal this conference by the way, the special features do. So watching it you wouldn't have any idea the extent to which the film's reality was warping natural events.

joe said...

I should've been clearer: I don't think the movie had any pioneering achievements, but it is a document of a type of fiction that did have them: Angela's internet novel.

Shawn said...

Oh I see. Yeah I think films are important in a long-term sense as recorded lessons of the past, and in that way Catfish has cataloged elaborate Internet fabrications, though I find it hard to believe you hadn't heard of them before this movie, and I don't think it's a well-made movie, so I hope someone else comes along and makes a better record. You were pretty clear about your point. I sort of threw out a straw man argument, but not for the usual reason, I just underestimated how interesting you found her to be. And I agree she's interesting, but didn't think the movie was well made and don't think they offered an interesting view of Angela herself through the movie (which you also say ... what the fuck Joe did you even like Catfish?), overwhelmed by their own fascination with her as they were.

Shawn said...

So I came back here to check if you had said anything else but you hadn't and so I reread your article and my replies and your reply and realized one thing that happened was when I made my comments I kept stressing it wasn't a well-made movie which is sort of hilarious in this particular context because your article sort of tried to make a point that the efficacy of its construction is secondary to the intrigue of one of its major concepts. This point would have to be exaggerated in order to make it work, because the intrigue of Angela's insulated dream world can only be fully appreciated by a well-made movie, right? Form and content are married to each other. Also, I think the only reason critics are giving this so much attention is because of that intrigue, which stands in contradiction to what you're saying about critics, so really you're taking exception not to how they're discussing the intricacies of Angela's digital world and the authenticity of the filmmakers' self-portraits but why they're discussing this, i.e. you're giving the other side of the same argument. You're disagreeing with them. When you engage them in this way you're helping broaden views, which is important, but I'm on neither side because I wish this film would just go away, and can see that Scott's review, for example, addresses both the issue of the filmmakers' self-portrayal and the issue of Angela's dream world, and last night I read Sight and Sound's review that deals almost exclusively with the conceptual vibrancy of Angela's dream world. I mean, that is what everyone's talking about. I think Catfish fails in both form and content, and cannot be saved by overemphasizing either side (as sometimes is possible, I think), this is why I don't like it. Also, you're slightly self-contradictory when you extend flattery to their self-portrayals, because I think their self-portrayals were indeed nauseatingly honest in a way that sometimes didn't really enhance the movie and could only serve as an emergency exit route to artistic responsibility i.e. they're saying in effect 'holy shit man we're just kids but like fuck this lady is weeeird seriously we're not sure why but take a look,' as an academic might put it, and what I meant a sentence ago (I can't remember using lots of periods or commas though so maybe just words ago) by self-contradiction is something I remember you acknowledging about Rourke's performance in The Wrestler: the artistic vanity that comes with ugly self-depictions. Tiny Furniture directly addresses this issue, which has been slowly creeping back into ideological conversations, thanks to the Internet, appropriately, and this is another reason I find the film (Catfish) sincere only sometimes and by accident, and honest without purpose. There are countless better examples of the home movie aspect. Catfish doesn't help me remember the potential flaws of people, it helps me remember the potential flaws of the film medium. I mean you have one good reason for loving the movie, that the film itself basically fails to depict convincingly, and there are many reasons why the film was bad, right? I'm not stating this (I mean I have stated this, but in this particular instance:), I'm asking, because rereading your article and my comments and your comment and thinking about this and that I'm more confused as to what the merits of this movie are supposed to be!

emma said...

OMG I'M SO GLAD I ENTERED THE WRONG CHARACTERS IN THE WORD VERIFICATION! I've spent the last two hours writing this long-ass comment about the question of veracity in the public's reception of documentaries, citing cases from Borat and I'm Still Here, both technically "mockumentaries," I know, and Exit Through the Gift Shop and it seems totally pedestrian now.

Sigh. Anyway, I'm glad you guys are my friends. Maybe I'll post it anyway. Later, when I don't feel so dumb.

Shawn said...

Holy fuck if you don't post it you can just strike that friend comment (exaggeration for the purpose of motivation, but I'm in actuality all tears and snot that something you spent time on has been sucked into the vortex of utter nothingness, I mean it's just vanished, right?, that's shit, isn't Blogger Google owned, isn't there such thing as cache or god knows what that could have saved your comment???), sigh.

By the way Emma, sometimes I want to ask you grammatical questions so please ask Joe for my number so I can ask you questions (because if you post your number here what if strange people call you? At the same time why should I make assumptions, please give it away to the Internet if you wish). I mean you're a goddamn professional. For example, today I was unsure of the difference between 'even you' and 'you even,' and I know 'even' is being used in some grammatical sense (yeah, I know a couple things) but I become like clouded with confusion over such a complex word as even, which is a verb, adverb, AND adjective. It's a very pompous word, I think. Now, please, haramune awaits me below (I've suffered the same defeat).

joe said...

All points well taken Shawn. I think its funny you asked if I actually liked the movie, since what sometimes happens with films or books I write about is that I dislike them after getting my thoughts out. I wouldn't say I dislike catfish. I had a great audience experience with it and like I said it got my brain rolling in a lot of different directions. But I think after writing about it I've explored all I care to for the foreseeable future. And it wasn't on my favorites list for quality per se. That being said, I didn't feel like Angela was a victim and according to the filmmakers she and her husband watched the film with them and signed off on it. And yeah, form is married to content, and that's why i think it ultimately failed.

Shawn said...

I think the victim aspect would also require a lengthy discussion, but I'm out of breath, and anyway these dimensions are clearer. I can see why some people don't see it that way and think it's basically a matter of taste, as they consented to the cameras in the first place (which is an element of the sadness for me). It's just that I don't think all moments are for the camera, as the camera makes things larger, and the expansive grief of Angela's life needn't be magnified by camera wielding boys bedizened with gifts of life Angela has to imagine herself a part of, that's all.

emma said...

Ok, here you go guys. Better late than never, I hope...

Though I never thought to question the veracity of Catfish, I do struggle with whether or not it matters to me. And while I appreciate the interdisciplinary argument, I think that this is perhaps also a psycho-social question about packaging, therefore best examined through comparison.

In the unpublished comment I wrote last week, I compared, at length, the differences between Catfish and Borat, their critical receptions, approaches to documentary (and I hold that Borat IS a documentary), etc., only to realize that I had actually only mentioned it as a case of fictional character/storyline in a documentary, which I think you touched upon somewhere in your original post, and it didn't have as much to do with my question as I'd thought.

Instead, it brought me to a different, unexpected line of inquiry: the question of celebrity as it pertains to credibility, which is sorta what we're talking about, right? Credibility, and why that's even an issue... Okay, so I introduced two other "documentaries" from the 2010, both of which have cred issues: I'm Still Here and Exit Through the Gift Shop, one which I've seen and work out at short length and the other, which I haven't, I use for superficial purposes only.

I'm Still Here shows Joaquin Phoenix's mental breakdown and retirement from acting. I call this a documentary, and not a mockumentary, as it's classified on Netflix, because it documents people's very real reactions to another, albehe fictional, person. But here's what's really interesting to me: in the film, we see Phoenix on Letterman, acting totally insane, as we remember him doing just months before when it aired on television. Except that by the time we're watching the movie we've heard Affleck announce that the whole episode was fake, Joaquin was acting. So we watch the scene twice, and we're forced into an unique situation where we're able to monitor the difference in our response to it, now that we know it's not real.

Again, the Letterman episode is a Borat type situation: fictional character garners real reactions from the real world. Except on the first round, WE are the anti-semetic hillbillies. And I think that this is the source of the film's negative critical response.

Celebrities are verifiable. Or, they're supposed to be. They're vetted because they know people we know, in the sense that watching someone's on screen career for years is to know them, and everyone knows Kevin Bacon, with whom I would trust my own child if I had one.

Ultimately, I think people felt betrayed by I'm Still Here, and humiliated that they'd fallen for it. This is the only explanation I have for the fact that even though JP's performance fooled everyone, and totally blew minds (or just mine), he's received no accolades for his performance.

Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop, on the other hand, is clinging to its veracity, though it too is has received major questions. I haven't seen the film yet, so I can't comment, instead I mention it to make a point about credibility. Although both Catfish and Exit were among the most notable documentaries on the festival circuit, Exit is nominated for an Oscar, and Catfish didn't even make the short list. Although the Academy has ridiculously strict rules for qualification, I wonder if Catfish was left out because of concerns about verifiability, able to be overlooked in Banksy's case because he's a noted provocateur.

emma said...


If Catfish is fake, you bring up a few interesting and challenging questions that that poses. But I don't see these guys tipping their hats, and as I mentioned earlier, I don't enter a documentary poised to question its honesty, so these questions are somewhat moot when judging the film, aren't they?

But all of this skips the larger question of why it matters at all. Essentially, when we see something startling that IS happening, it carries different weight than when we see something that could conceivably happen. For me, that weight is greater and lasting.

Oh and Shawn, I'll have Joe text you my number and email address. Though, I don't know that I'll be much help with grammar, nor that I think you should try to change the way you write. After all, the point of punctuation is clearer communication, and you've managed to develop a style that captures your tone and thought process EXACTLY. On occasion, I've told Joe that your writing is post grammatical.

Shawn said...

Appreciation for indeed commenting. How funny to think of your comment's patient trust in a reader's speculative curiosity. Mine now undergoes the same trial.

I've enjoyed and benefited from both your recent comment and Joe's previous article and comments. It's clear the film(s) opened doors for you two, new ones or dusty ones, and I find such effects inarguable testimonies to the efficacy of films.

Though my feelings remain discordant. These films seem harmful to me not because they're actuality or non-actuality, but because of their hideously incongruous pretenses of compassion and genuine introspection. This is the inconsistency that alienates me. As a viewer I take a sort of Sebaldian approach and avoid differentiating between real and not real. What is being said and how it's being expressed - that's all I care about.

For me what you're discussing, when you're discussing truthfulness, isn't a consideration when I'm in the theater experiencing these movies. That's why I mostly avoided the issue in my previous comments. I believe the camera always tells the truth and always lies, simply put (I actually place a particular emphasis on everything being basically true in multiple ways, my what a topic that is!). It's an incredibly complex concept, which I think is what justifiably excites you and a lot of other people when evaluating the accomplishments of Catfish or I'm Still Here. But the films fail to appease many of my primary concerns, making it difficult to relish in their conceptual conceits. I find them unstimulating because an emotional dishonesty bothers me, a certain irreverence, insouciance, and indecency.

I think you and Joe rightly observe how several important questions raised by the films have deeper significances. How I wish the films themselves effectively explored those questions! I'm perhaps making the mistake of allowing the films to identify themselves, and maybe if I could treat their seriousness less serious I could gain something from them.

I agree that Exit Through (which I have seen) was probably nominated at least partially based on Banksy's reputation, because it's the Oscars and that sounds like them, but although I overall didn't like that film either, I think it was the best of the three, in terms of its construction, which seems an important criteria at the Oscars.

By sheer coincidence it was a profuse year for the concept of genuineness. I found two recent narrative films, Tiny Furniture and Certified Copy, more evocative examinations of the issues being discussed. It's always been significant to me that Kieslowski chose to abandon documentary films for narratives because he felt he could come closer to the truth through narrative films. I think a Tiny Furniture and Certified Copy vs. Catfish and I'm Still Here battle royal supports his theory. Please share your thoughts on Certified Copy after you see it (please see Certified Copy).

As for my grammar, I appreciate what I believe is a compliment. It's not that I'm trying to change my style, which I've (somewhat) deliberately cultivated, it's just that I want to know what rules I'm following or not following when I'm not following or following them. I agree with you on the point of grammar, but I think sometimes, especially in instances of ingrained usage, I may not have a clear view of what I'm expressing or how I'm expressing it. I may inadvertently be failing to make my point because of how I'm making it grammatically (as in all things).

Kenny said...

I thought this was an excellent take on the film that addressed a a lot of why I loved it that was overlooked by the rest of the reviews I've read. It's a damn shame this didn't get a nomination for Best Documentary Feature.