Thursday, 10 February 2011

To Be a Catfish

Does anyone still believe that the internet is a direct reflection of someone's personality? The internet is fantastic for casting us all in a generous and brilliant light, showing only our best parts, our most flattering angles. We get to put forth a perfectly controlled idealisation of ourselves. It's highly unlikely that anyone will admit on their OKCupid or Facebook profile that they can be petty or selfish or rather ugly first thing in the morning. On the internet, we never stumble over our words. We can edit them or delete them all together. We do not stutter. We conceal as much as we reveal. We get to slip into our very best selves like clothes. But that's exactly it; clothes do not make the man and the internet cannot possibly convey the real self. Where words do not always trip so easily off the tongue and when, once they are out there, you don't get to call them back. We are too far gone into the internet age to any longer believe in its transparency. And with all this known, 'Catfish' fits into our present discourse in a curious and fascinating way. It is worth seeing for that fact alone.

The question of whether this film is ‘real’ or not is beside the point. The reason the film works so well is precisely because of its ambiguity in this area. Its presenting of itself as warning of the danger of taking a readily available and oversaturation of social media as constitutive of actual reality, is deeply deeply ironic. How could it not be? With its heavy use of augmented reality, Google Earth and reality TV conventions, it becomes impossible for the audience to not wonder whether they are also being duped into believing that this all actually happened. And isn’t that the point? The brilliance of ‘Catfish’ lies in its ability to have become more than itself, to ceaselessly produce what it claims to negate. If anything, it does not demystify the strange smoke and mirrors of our internet age as it makes that smoke thicker, those mirrors even more opaque. Of course, this is nothing that fiction hasn’t been doing since the eighteenth century. But still, that doesn’t detract from the fact that ‘Catfish’ is an insidiously clever and compelling film about those bloodless internet ciphers we encounter on the internet everyday and our causal assumptions that such ghosts in the machine are absolutely duplicated in flesh and blood reality. This is why I can’t quite understand why the film-makers are so desperate to hark on about the whole thing being real. It’s annoying and patronising and it just doesn’t matter because fiction or not, the film’s importance still stands. It’s not like the fact that something is made up has ever detracted from its worth as a piece or art or a cultural product or whatever.

The discussion surrounding the film is almost as interesting as the film itself. The film produces its own discourse which has worked to its advantage. Even those reviewing the film have had to continue its mystique by being unable to really discuss the film in any way without spoilers. This can only ever add to increased curiosity and interest in the film itself. It has produced meditations on exploitation; often condemning Angela for her manipulations but also acknowledging that the film makers have also exploited her for their own means. What these discussions tend to leave out are the clear gender politics in the film which beg the question: what got Angela to the point where she was telling so many lies she could barely keep up with them? Can her acts simply be labelled as exploitative or is there a way of contextualising them to make them less so? This is what I'm going to attempt to do.

In 'Catfish', there are two primary ‘real people’: one (Nev), a good-looking New York hipster; the other (Angela), a bored housewife living in Nowhere, Michigan. What connects them both is a need to be seen, as if the only way their life can have meaning is if it is reflected back at them through social media. Except this though: one uses social media to have his life seen by others whilst the other uses social media as a way to escape and evade her reality. Why? Perhaps simply because one is a pathological liar whilst the other is a naive ingénue with a penance for falling in love with people he hasn’t even met yet. But I doubt it is as simple as this. Firstly, without wanting to sound cynical, said ingénue is a little bit too good-looking to have not done his fair share of double dealings to get what he wanted from a girl. And I’m not saying this makes him a bad person; I just don’t buy the wide-eyed innocence thing. And I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Nev would have never given Angela a second glance if she had passed him in the street. She knows this. And she is, for whatever reason, desperately in love with him. This is obvious from their interactions with each other, from the way she pays him compliments, from the way she looks at him with a yearning which has made peace with the knowledge that it will remain unrequited.

But I think that her desire goes beyond him as a person; it is also a desire for his life, for the things he has, for his freedom. After all, he is an affluent urban male who doesn’t only get to express his creativity but gets to make a living from it. She is an intelligent and talented woman who has had to stifle her creative ambitions to become a house-wife and carer to her severely mentally-disabled stepsons. It is as if 'The Feminine Mystique' never happened for this woman. Her husband unknowingly articulates her situation when he tells the camera that whenever she is in despair regarding her life, he reminds her that she 'cannot have it all'. She can have her big art career or she can have the sometimes stifling security of a husband and kids but to have both is an impossible dream. No wonder then that she fills her time- she literally spends hours each day updating a complicated and self-contained network of Facebook profiles- breathing life into these young, cool and prodigiously talented characters who encapsulate everything that does not exist in her real life. No wonder that she immerses herself so much into her creations that she disappears. Isn't that the point? Most writers of fiction identify themselves as such but then Angela doesn't simply want to show how good she is at tall tales. She wants the fiction to devour her up, swallow the banalities of her life whole, forever change everything inside and outside of her. This need is so great that she desperately produces lies and stalls for time just so she can enjoy one more minute of the fantasy-as-reality. It would be difficult to condone what she did- especially when she lies about having cancer. But I think it can be understood. What woman hasn't felt the trappings of gender? Who hasn't- male or female- wanted even for one moment to be somewhere or someone else? Angela is really just the absurd and painful result of that feeling taken much too far, allowed to sink in much too deep through the confinements of her class and gender. Because of this, I can forgive her deceiving of Nev (after all, he and his buddies got a fairly successful film out of it). I can certainly forgive her using the film's notoriety to garner an audience for her paintings. It is a sad but inescapable fact that this film is her best chance to achieve the success and artistic expression that has so long been denied her. It's an uncomfortable but necessarily pragmatic move on her part to go for a life that doesn't compel her to exist within a ghost house of fiction and lies where she can, in fact, have it all.

The seemingly inscrutable title of this documentary is explained late in the film in perhaps too shrewd and poetic a way to not be scripted: when transporting live cod from China, a couple of catfish’s were used in each barrel to fluster and annoy the cod into constant action, ensuring that they arrived at their destination fresh and alive. It is clear by now who the catfish is in this film. And it's hard and thankless work, existing only to keep others agile and lively. How sad, how lonely to be a catfish with no one snapping at your heels, no one caring enough to keep you moving.

© 2011 Emma Mould