“Catfish” is ostensibly a movie about a New York photographer who tries to uncover the truth behind a girl he meets over the Internet, but the film is really about the nature of imitation. There’s a Google Earth-inspired riff on the classic Universal logo at the movie’s outset, and from there nearly every element of the documentary feels like it was artificially constructed from loose blueprints of real human experience. But here, that’s a compliment. “Catfish” is a movie of our times precisely because it shows us how fake many aspects of our lives really are.

Catfish

At the State
Universal

The film’s protagonist Nev Schulman gets roped into the world of an Ishpeming, Michigan family when an immensely talented eight-year-old artist named Abby sends him her own painted depictions of photographs he’s published. Over a montage of their correspondence we hear a cover version of the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” sung by a children’s choir — like the paintings themselves, it’s a clever and skilled replication of an already-existing work of art. Nev also begins talking to Abby’s family, including her half-sister Megan, who quickly falls in online lust with him. Megan is a self-professed musician too, though the “original” songs she sends Nev should tell you all you need to know about the deceptive role she’s playing in all of this.

It used to be common knowledge that online impersonators were trying to elicit something illegitimate out of their efforts: a financial scheme, say, or underage sex like everyone on “To Catch a Predator.” In “Catfish,” the means are also the ends: The thrill of communicating vicariously through invented personas is in itself a reward.

In the second half of the film, Nev, along with co-directors Henry Joost and brother Ariel Schulman, heads out on a road trip with the goal of showing up on Megan’s doorstep unannounced and finally getting to the bottom of who she is. Both the structure of “Catfish” and its marketing materials highlight a secretive twist ending, but in doing so the people behind the film have wrongly constructed a selling point based around trickery and deception. Twists are meant for audience-goosing stories that place all their stakes on a big reveal, and that’s simply not what the narrative of “Catfish” demands. Rather, the true nature of the movie lies in what Joost and Schulman uncover after the twist: a strange, sad and complex meditation on the loneliness of the modern human condition.

“Catfish” is being released as a documentary. Joost and Schulman have insisted many times that everything in the movie is real. And yet anyone paying attention will have several unanswered questions by the film’s end, which serve to cast doubt on its authenticity (a recurring theme at the movies these days, thanks to the likes of “Exit Through the Gift Shop” and “I’m Still Here”). Is “Catfish” a true documentary about people who construct imitations of lives on their computers, or is it a constructed imitation of a documentary that only shows certain information to its audience while withholding other things, like a Facebook profile page?

Maybe the movie actually says more about our times. If it is fake, “Catfish” already serves as a document of construction, deception and acceptance of that deception. Taking away the last “true” thing about it makes the film even more indicative of these themes.

Visitors to the movie’s official website have the opportunity to simulate Nev as he chats with Megan online, meaning that they can pretend to be an imitation of someone who is simulating a conversation with a fake person. “Catfish” detractors might view the experience as completely inane and devoid of real-world meaning. To others, it’s just the next logical step in our lives.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *