Monday, September 27, 2010


Warning: This post may contain vague spoilers, but does not contain concrete ones. I don't come out and say it, but it's impossible to write about Catfish without at least alluding to the story's secret. Read at your risk. Even better, go see the movie, then come back and read.
I lucked into a special showing of Catfish, with co-director Henry Joost in attendance, making it two movies in a row I've seen that were followed by Q&A with the film's maker, since the last movie I went to was The Big Uneasy in New Orleans on 8/30 with Harry Shearer. I intentionally didn't read much about Catfish, because I didn't want to know the secret, and I went early in its release, the second day, because I knew I couldn't stop myself from finding out for long. I also wanted to see "Catfish" before seeing The Social Network, wanting to see the story built on Facebook before seeing the story of how Facebook was built. It was an afternoon showing on a sunny Saturday, so the crowd was small, and I sat down front and right, so it just happened that he was five or six feet from me when answering questions. Even better, he spent time in the lobby signing autographs and talking to folks after the show, and really seemed to be a great guy. Pictured with me at right, he looks remarkably like The Youngest (much less so IRL).
The film follows Nev (rhymes with Steve) Schulman, a photographer and the brother of Joost's business partner, Ariel, with whom he runs a film production company in New York City. The three shared an office space. In this highly recommended recent piece, Joost describes it simply:
Our threshold for considering something interesting enough to film is very, very low.... When Nev started to correspond with an 8-year-old kid who reached out to him on the internet, Ariel pulled out his camera instinctively.... We film ourselves all the time.
Their resulting work follows Nev's evolving relationship with that kid and her family, immediate and extended. The virally popular trailer calls what happens when they head out on a road trip to meet these people "shattering", but I don't agree and think that's even misleading. I found the surprise liberating and sweet, maybe even the opposite of the scary it's been depicted. It's more like discovering Picasso's "lie that tells the truth," defining art and the creative spirit, even if some of that spirit, that art, is accidental, even if someone could get hurt. I was wondering if it was true, and some in the media have suggested it's a faux documentary, a story built to look like the truth, a device. "Is it true?" was one of the first questions asked of Joost during the Q & A that followed the film, and Joost didn't just answer, "Yes." Much, if not most, of the discussion that followed was less about the movie and more about the experience that these young men shared, more importantly, the remarkable people they met. They saw something unfolding in front of them and documented it without knowing where it would go, almost stumbling into a deeply moving story and one that also speaks to a core value of social media: its ability to relieve the loneliness and isolation that so often burden ordinary people, perhaps especially those overwhelmed by loss, difficulty, routine, emptiness, pain, its ability to help us hold onto "fragments of things we used to be, wanted to be, never could be," as he put it. BTDT.
Ultimately, the film's creators find the eruptive, disruptive, irrepressible nature of the artistic soul, affirming the notion that the thing you can't not do, that thing that comes out anyway, even when you or the circumstances of your life try to keep it in, will find a way even if it's sideways, even when our burdens bend us, bend it. These young men, perhaps overly eager, some have suggested self-absorbed, turned out to be as gentle and generous souls as the ones they discovered. Instead of judging, they embraced. "Catfish" isn't scary or shattering; it's tender and enlightening. As Joost put it, "The biggest surprise in living the experience and making the film was that we didn't find a villain on the other side of that door." I'm so glad I saw "Catfish" and got the chance to talk with Henry Joost. It's one of those movies you keep thinking about long after it's over. If it's not playing where you are, click here and request the movie in your area.
The current crop of documentaries really is seriously enticing. I'd also like to see "Waiting for Superman" and "I'm Still Here". I loved "Catfish" but warn you not to expect some huge stunner of a reveal, because it's a more ordinary but elegant story they unfold. Next weekend I'm going to go for the big studio fiction based on real life, the movie about Facebook, "The Social Network". I'll try not to expect Aaron Sorkin to be there.

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