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Sunday
Oct032010

« In Which Catfish Swim Around The Internet »

Everyone We Don't Know

by SARAH ZHANG

The most indelible cinematic image of Internet "romance" may be an emoticon: ))<>((. “You poop into my butt hole and I poop into your butt hole…back and forth…forever,” types Robby (Brandon Ratcliff) to a chatroom acquaintance in Miranda July’s 2005 film Me and You and Everyone We Know. Out of context, this quote seems to embody the muckiest corners of the web, where our basest desires make it into the pixilated light. But Robby is only a six year-old boy – the age when kids are most fascinated with poop – and he’s all innocence and just in way over his head. The tired adage goes that nobody knows you’re a dog on the Internet, but there is Robby, a puppy really, and then there is Catfish, an entirely different beast.

The documentary Catfish chronicles the relationship between Nev Schulman, a New York City photographer and Megan Faccio, whom he meets on Facebook. Abby, Megan’s eight-year-old sister, is a talented painter, and it is her paintings of Nev’s photographs that forges the first connections between Nev and her family, headed up by the mother Angela Pierce. Soon enough Nev finds himself regularly calling, texting, gchatting his “Facebook family.”

The story’s other characters are the filmmakers, Nev’s brother Ari Schulman and friend Henry Joost, who jump on the promising storyline of Nev’s relationship. It is the not-so-secret hope of all documentarians and nonfiction writers that a story gets juicier as it unfolds, and Schulman and Joost have stumbled into a gushing fount of drama. The camera often feels uncomfortably exploitative, especially when a reluctant Nev wants to stop baring his emotional life on screen or when the sad truth of Megan's family is revealed. Although Catfish too involves a child, the exploitations it’s embedded are no child’s play.

Catfish takes perverse pleasure in pacing, especially in doling out the lies. The first half is the slow burn of flirtation between Nev and Megan. It is not only Megan, but a whole web of her family and friends, whom Ned befriends. Facebook photos of these very attractive people, scrutinized so closely by the camera that white space becomes pixilated, flash across the screen. But as anyone with the slightest cynical impulse has probably already intuited: the photographs are lies, Megan is a lie.

It begins to unravel when she sends Nev her own cover of a song that turns out, like all the other songs she has posted on her Facebook page, to be rips of YouTube videos. Nev confronts her over gchat. Instant messaging is not especially cinematic – text on a screen conveys none of the tone or facial expressions that actors are trained to mimic – but Nev’s reaction says enough for them both. He wants to quit the documentary, yet his brother and Joost egg him on. This simple documentary about a guy and a girl becomes a quest for the truth.

So off they to go Ishpeming, Michigan to meet the family. Each time a lie is peeled away, the scab of a new lie takes its place. Angela turns out to be a frumpy middle-aged woman, not the lithe blonde of her Facebook. Abby does not paint; it is actually Angela who does. Megan is not there. First Angela says she is institutionalized. Then she admits Megan is not real, but the photos on Facebook are of a family friend. The photos are actually of a model and photographer living in Vancouver. The real Angela lives with her husband Vince and her two severely disabled stepsons. Whereas the Facebook family was a band of artistic bohemians, the real one seems to befit a Southern Gothic novel. Angela is living not a double life, but multiple lives of all the family members and friends of Megan that she has created.

In an age of consent forms, why would Angela allow all of her lies to play out across America’s screens? A one sentence plot summary – mocking New York types film a documentary about a sadsack family in the Midwest – smacks of exploitation, maybe even of revenge for being fooled in the first place. Schulman and Joost’s camera is actually much more sympathetic, giving credence to Angela’s hardships and space for her thwarted aspirations to be aired. Still, some part feels like the New Yorkers have persuaded a poor woman who actually is in love with Nev into something to further their own artistic careers. “All art is exploitation” according to Sherman Alexie, especially art that co-opts the true lives of other people.

But Angela is a consummate artist too, if not exactly type the type she wanted to be. “A lot of the personalities that came out were just fragments of myself,” admits Angela. The dreams that she harbored of being a dancer and artist came to fruition with the creation of Megan and her artistic family. The false identities created by Angela are a type of art and a type of exploitation too. In a reversal of roles, it is Angela who stands the most to gain from Catfish. Nev, Ari, and Henry were already fairly successful artists in New York, whereas Angela goes from a lonely woman in Michigan to a minor celebrity.

It is hard to see her as guileless because she has proven herself so casually manipulative, going so far as to fake cancer to engender sympathy when the first holes in her story are blown. Since the documentary was filmed, she has set up her own websites to further the sale of her paintings and photographs.

In Me and You and Everyone We Know, the woman with whom Robby is chatting turns out to be an uptight curator for the contemporary art museum. At the end of the film, the camera pans across a banner announcing a new exhibit at the museum called "WARM: 3-D and TOUCH in the DIGITAL AGE." I wonder if Angela’s vast web of lies – a kind of performance art that perfectly demonstrates the continued need for human warmth and touch – would be considered in such an exhibit.

The representative image of this documentary is the catfish, which carries all of the foul and none of the innocent connotations of poop. It comes from a final monologue by Angela’s husband, Vince. The story goes like this: catfish were kept with tanks of cod to keep the cod nimble and on edge. Otherwise, their flesh would turn to mush. We need catfish in our lives, says Vince, people who will keep on our toes. As part of the film’s viral marketing campaign, Universal has been drawing chalk catfish all over the streets of Harvard Square. Near one row of chalk catfish, someone drew a giant barracuda devouring the catfish. Angela is no catfish. She is a barracuda. 

Sarah Zhang is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Cambridge. This is her first appearance on these pages. She tumbls here.

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