As I was watching CATFISH, the new quasi-documentary that has created quite a buzz with its suspiciously eerie trailer and shrouded-in-secrecy content, I recalled another an Internet forum board drama of a few years back. I was (and still do) listening to this wonderful Net radio station called Radio Paradise. In addition to great playlists, the site features forum boards designated by specialty; some are more general places to spray your grafitti. A real community of people from all over the world congregates there to share their life doings. They even have in-person meetups.
For years I monitored and sometimes even participated in the cyber banter. Over time you "meet" these folks who may share your musical persuasions, see the same names repeatedly. About 100 of the same people posted over and over. Some put up pictures of themselves. There was one young woman who became quite popular: a waitress from the Midwest who dealt with crippling depression. She posted a recurring "pissy index" that indicated her current level of bitchiness. She garnered friends and sympathy from the forum posters, even the husband and wife who run the station/site. The woman was mercurial, even deceitful at times. For example, she posted pics of another person she claimed was herself. She came clean later. Then, the woman announced that she was going to commit suicide, albeit in a peaceful, Dr. Kevorkian manner. The board was filled with concern but also understanding.
Some time passed, and one of the site's posters-cum-provaceteurs found evidence (pics and such) that this young lady was actually alive and well and even partying! The "community" cried foul and all but burned this poor lady at the stake. She came on and admitted to spreading lies, and they continued to spew the venom. In some ways, I couldn't blame them. They invested their time and care into a hoax, a cruel one at that. Then I thought about how bizarre the entire online community thing is-it's a perfect arena in which to display one's flair for the theatrical. Perhaps to live vicariously. Real life sucks oftentimes, why not embelish (or invent) your existence a bit? I entered the fray on the forum and told the other posters they took the whole thing too seriously and should get over it. The responses to me were almost as vile as the ones directed at our heroine.
CATFISH tells, in documentary style, the perhaps untrue tale of 2 NYC filmmakers named Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost who decide to document the life of Ariel's photographer brother Nev. Specifically, they track Nev's communication with a family from Ishpeming, a rural town in Michigan. This comes after Nev receives a painting based on one of his photos of ballet dancers in New York. The painting is quite good, especially since it was done by an 8 year-old; her name is Abby. Nev and Abby become Facebook friends and communicate regularly. More amazing paintings are sent to Nev. Angela, Abby's mom, even begins chatting with him on the telephone. She describes how her gifted daughter has sold her works for upwards of 7K and even has openings in a local gallery (that had been converted from a J.C. Penney's). Megan, Angela's other daughter, also begins communicating with Nev. And boy, are her photos hot! Angela also sends a painting that portrays her as a none-too-shabby specimen herself. Soon, other family members become Facebook pals. Something like a total of 15 people.
We watch as Nev has more and more intimate conversations with Angela and Megan. Of the latter, he thinks he may have found his soulmate. He worries that he won't be able to control himself when they finally meet. After a shoot in Colorado, Nev and the filmmakers decide to surprise the family in Michigan. Why the impromptu visit? Because things begin to suggest to Nev that perhaps all is not what is portrayed on Facebook. Things like alleged original songs that Megan posts. And how is it that those paintings fetch so much money in rural Michigan? There's a market there? Then there's a phone call that reveals that that old Penney's is still just that; not a gallery. A wee hour visit to what Megan described as her horse farm reveals...well, the film's posters and taglines tell me I should shut up now. But, don't read further if don't wanna know more.
What follows in CATFISH is a another sad slice of not only Americana, but also of no less than what someone once described as "the dreary architecture of one's soul." We'll meet what is portrayed as a deeply troubled individual, someone who sold their dreams for creature comforts, perhaps. The filmmakers shoot this 94 minute film as a shaky doc, all cinéma vérité and such. At one point, Nev even wears a hidden mic. CATFISH has the conviction of a real life story. It's engaging, involving, funny. There's even some real suspense, but unlike what the trailer suggests, this is not a horror film ala THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Mark Mothersbaugh did some of the scoring. As an aside, and to my great amusement, I noticed in the credits that a band called "Holy Shit" did one of the songs. That name is appropriate to this movie, especially from Nev's point of view.
At press conferences, journalists and other documentarians have taken the Schulmans and Joost to task over the authenticity of CATFISH. The filmmakers swear it's 100% true. I have my doubts.
It's not because I think scenarios like this don't occur every day. I know they do. It shouldn't be news to anyone that that sexy chick in Peoria may not be who or what she claims (or look that way). Ask anyone who has been burned on dating sites, for example. I think we all know that social network and other sites don't always tell the truth, but often rather present a "reality" served up by its members. As I said, this does not bother me. The only way it might present as a dilemma to me would be if I was an employer. Even then, caveat emptor, as they say. Deceit is not new, we just have more efficient and creative ways to let it run wild.
The Internet, as stated, is a perfect place to create the illusions that many wish were their very lives. One can fabricate all manner of lifestyles; it isn't difficult, especially with Skype and all the other accessories. Angela, we learn, has gone to many pains to present an image that seduces our protagonist. He buys into it, then finds the truth. It's not pretty, even heartbreaking at times. We'll see things that reminded me of some of the images of Errol Morris' docs like VERNON, FLORIDA and THE THIN BLUE LINE. That is favorable. I won't give specifics as to what we see here, but, CATFISH might well be an appropriate film to screen for undergrad psych majors, whether its events are true or not....