[Though Catfish was released limited in the U.S back in February, Rogue Pictures is rolling it out with a wider release starting September 17th. Our thanks to Aaron Krasnov for the following review.]
Catfish's current marketing campaign involves a red catfish (labeled as such), a pixilated mouse pointer and the line "DON'T TELL ANYONE WHAT IT IS." The image suggests something sinister: red dripping paint, an order of ignorance, and a large ominous pointer. When I initially saw the campaign my mind jumped towards Feardotcom and Untraceable, internet, blood, secrecy; my disposition to horror doesn't help in these matters. I have no intention of divulging what "it" is until after a break below, but I will say the marketing material is aimed at the wrong crowd. While the image is vague, it caters to a certain audience, and while I don't want to accuse, I don't see the Paranormal Activity audience developing much affinity for the film.
Without spoiling anything, Catfish is a film which encapsulates the use of current social and informational web services without posturing or phoniness. The emotional connections enabled, the techno-natural interactions, the fatuitous pratfalls and deceits, the off-hand admonishments and need for recognition are all put on display in potent, never distracting fashion. The buzz out of Sundance and the current marketing material provide an informational curtain which you are dared not to peak behind. A curtain, which once pulled back, reveals something unexpected...
The basic premise is as follows: A personable, New York based photographer with a big smile and a great deal of charisma has a photograph published in the New York Times. Shortly thereafter he receives a package from a 9 year old painter in Michigan who has committed his photo to canvas. The package begets an online friendship with the entire family: sister, mother, step-father and friends.
Facebook walls, profile photos, Youtube videos, and Google street view locations assemble an informational structure of the family instantly familiar to anyone who has used the services. Further aiding the net-enabled imagery, phone conversations are struck up and the relationship progresses. Pictures form in our minds of the family we have only viewed through facebook, lovingly dubbed the facebook family, we know their voices through the phone conversations, we know their faces and their suggested proclivities. As our mental model develops so does the circle of friends and relatives, things steadily become more intimate and the inevitable questioning of information begins. Inconsistencies start to rear their heads and the need for confrontation emerges.
The correspondence is captured with much self-effacing humor, the photographer quips, the documentarians egg and we all laugh at the charade. All of the laughter and jokes are eventually put to test as previous reasoning and expectation run smack into the wall of humanity.
[editor's note - major spoilers follow]
The third act deals with the confrontation, the discovery of what "it" is. "It" is a heavy-set middle aged woman with two handicapped step-children and the want for her art to be discovered, an art passed off as the art of a 9 year old. In an attempt to escape her situation and create an outlet for her artistic endeavors this woman has reached out, to a fellow artist whose work inspired her. Establishing connection through factually amorphous tools a new identity and means of fulfillment was created. When the emotional implications of the relationship are revealed our previous vantage point of laughter and possible hope are called into question.
The knowledge of this woman falsifying an entire online network of accounts solely to speak with a photographer and share in his artistic inspiration is painful. We share in her realization and confession, we see her life as it is and understand the flight. The reality of escape and urge for recognition crystallizes, as does the sad desperation available through these technologies.
A state of visible emotional loss is reached as we watch the would-be painter accept what she has done and the photographer emotionally distance himself from the situation. There is no hostility, no sense of mal-intent only the need to move past sorrow and back towards reality.
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