Who exactly is the monster in the new documentary Catfish?
Before seeing the movie, all you hear is that there’s a big secret behind the film, that you don’t want to have it spoiled for you, that it will totally shock/rock your world. The trailer warns “Don’t let anyone tell you what it is.” OMG! Wow!
Then it turns out that, yes, there’s a secret, but it isn’t quite what you imagined. In the trailer, you see that the main character Nev gets into a relationship with some girl via Facebook, and you even see them driving to her house for the first visit, late at night. So I thought the surprise would be her on the floor, dead, or her in the basement, trapped by her rapist sicko uncle or something.
Of course, now we know (if you don’t, stop reading) that the secret is much more psychological, and maybe even creepier. Or is it? When I first saw the movie in theatres, I went with a friend and we basically agreed after that the surprise sort of delivered, in that it was surprising and weird, but then we talked a bit more and agreed that as a whole it was a poorly made film. First of all, even at a short 86 minutes, it felt too long. It really dragged up until they finally go to see “Megan.” The entire beginning could have been told in like five minutes: “Hey I’m Nev, I got into a relationship via Facebook with this girl that sure seems super hot, now here we are, about to go meet her for the first time.” Boom, 40-minute movie. In addition, due to the marketing, you’re suspicious from the beginning. You know something is going to go wrong, and even though you don’t know what—most people, it seems, didn’t guess it exactly—you can get close. My buddy and I were whispering during the movie and by the time the guys leave to see Angela, we were predicting that she either wouldn’t exist, or she’d be some 45-year-old dude.
We also did form the opinion, on our own, that it’s the guys who look pretty mean when they go stick the cameras in Angela’s face. But we also still felt that she was really horrifying, and quite a terror in her own right—a sick, manipulative person who toyed with another human being when she was bored.
But then, after seeing the movie and paging through the many reviews that suggest they were dishonest (some of the early scenes were recreated, supposedly, not caught on film the first time around), I found A.O. Scott’s Times review, which I obviously hadn’t read before seeing the movie.
Scott sort of converted me into thinking that yes, the filmmakers do look bad and judgmental and harsh and cruel, and yes, Angela is a monster but Nev and Ariel and the third guy are almost worse for criticizing her and exploiting her. But more importantly, I wondered why I hadn’t seen that the first time around more completely. Yes, some part of me knew it felt mean, but I’m happy to admit that more of me was swept up in the “ick” factor. But looking back on it, I feel stupid for not feeling the way Scott felt initially. I don’t know if this means I’m easily convinced of things or if it’s a credit to the filmmakers, i.e. the way I was made to feel so disgusted by Angela is a testament to their skill. But Salon called the movie “slippery” and “inexpert,” and others too have said that if anything is clear, it’s that these three just got lucky by managing to capture on camera a really strange turn of events, and that they don’t deserve too much credit beyond that. There was also a crowd effect with the movie; people were gasping and saying “eww” in the theatre as the Angela shit unraveled. That’s hard to resist.
The bottom line is that thinking about it more, the “big reveal” wasn’t disappointing, but it wasn’t thrilling. It was revealed too gradually to be that moving—the reaction was more like, “Oh god… wow.” In addition, the way they kept filming Angela’s retarded sons made it more uncomfortable (in the end credits, why did they feel the need to mention one had died? That seems strange and kind of vaguely offensive; it didnt relate to the movie at all). These three invaded Angela’s personal life, and though she invaded Nev’s first, and though after the fact they all agreed, apparently, to be in the movie, it all leaves a bad taste in your mouth. It’s unclear who the real monsters are.
Anyway, they’re all famous stars now, so whether what they did was right or wrong, what do they care? Just go to Nev Schulman’s Facebook profile (all with public photos) to see the obnoxious poses and self-congratulatory captions of pictures from magazine shoots and visits to the offices of social media companies. Catfish is no classic, nor is it destined to last long in reputation (no one will be talking about this movie in a couple years; already, the buzz has died down). But it did succeed, clearly, in provoking us and prompting strong emotions either way. That, or puzzlement.