‘F’ for fake: Catfish **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 25, 2010)

So-would you believe me if I told you that showman P.T. Barnum never actually uttered the words “There’s a sucker born every minute”? You know how I found that out? I Googled it. It says, right here in the Wikipedia, that P.T. Barnum’s “famous quote” never left his lips. And since I read it on the internet, it simply must be true…right? Oh, and have I mentioned that I am a wealthy, athletically built, 6’2” 34 year-old male, with a PhD in quantum physics, into music, literature and film? Are you buying this shit?

In the documentary (-ish) Catfish, a buzz-generating entry at this year’s Sundance, directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost ask their audience to buy a lot of shit. In spite of a cast billed as playing themselves, and Universal’s press kit trumpeting that “filmmakers” Schulman and Joost “…had no idea that their project would lead to the most exhilarating and unsettling months of their lives”- well, if this film is a “documentary”- then I am a wealthy, athletically built, 6’2” 34 year old male with a PhD.

But I could be wrong. Perhaps the events “documented” in this film did actually transpire as presented, and I’m just an embittered, mean old cynic who has seen too many movies. Let’s play along just for a moment. Let’s say that Schulman and Joost really were in the process of making a documentary-in-search-of-a-story, when it dawned on them that the “story” was right in front of them the whole time.

Schulman’s brother Nev, a professional photographer and genetic lottery winner with his own camera-friendly good looks, had struck up a social networking-based friendship with an artistically gifted 8 year old girl from Michigan, who initially intrigued him by snail-mailing strikingly mature oil paintings, based on his photos. When the girl’s 19 year old sister introduced herself into the mix, Nev struck up a web relationship with her as well; a relationship of a more involved and potentially amorous nature.

Nev, now the official “subject” of his brother’s film, reached a point where he wanted to take the next logical step-and not necessarily for the reasons you might think (I’m trying to keep this review as “spoiler-free” as possible). Suffice it to say our intrepid NYC-based trio of dazzling urbanites-turned-detectives are soon packing up their film gear and heading to Ted Nugent country for a surprise visit. Ah, but which of the parties involved in this cyber-intrigue is in for the bigger surprise? I could tell you…but then I’d have to kill you.

I will hand it to the filmmakers-they have constructed a virtually critic-proof product. If one decries the possible fudging involved, then the filmmakers could counter that the heart of the story is, after all, about the inherent deception of cyber romance (the  “How do you know that the 19 year old cheerleader you’ve been sexting isn’t in reality a middle-aged truck driver named Bubba?” meme).

Also, the Universal press kit I quoted from refers to the film as a “reality thriller”-which could be thrown back at critics as a caveat emptor (“We never billed this as a documentary.”). Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, but in a post Blair Witch Project world I feel it my duty as a critic to bring this up. Oh well…wasn’t it Godard who said that “Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world.”?

If you can get past the “Is it real or Memorex” conundrum-this is not necessarily a bad film; it’s intriguing enough to hold your interest through to the end. And if the point is to show how we have become a world of Walter Mittys and Eleanor Rigbys, spending the long dark nights of our souls pecking away on our keyboards, busily reinventing ourselves to assuage our lives of quiet desperation, then the film does convey a bittersweet poignancy in the denouement. And I have a confession to make. I’m not 6’2”.

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