09 October 2010
Everything I'm about to say will be rife with spoilers. This is a movie that, if you can, you should see without having anything ruined for you. The problem is, even me saying that is enough to ruin the surprises of the film for any intelligent moviegoer, because if you know a movie has a surprise you can't not look for it, even when you try not to. This is how the movie was spoiled for me (and so was Awake and so was, way back when, The Sixth Sense and in a more explicit way so was I'm Still Here) -- by a good friend saying something along the lines of, "I can't really tell you about this film without spoiling it. It involves people meeting on Facebook. You should go see it, unspoiled." He meant well. But the damage was done.
Anyway, going in with that in mind I had the same experience I had when I saw Herzog's Grizzly Man the day after watching Zak Penn's mockumentary Incident at Loch Ness starring Werner Herzog as himself. It made me so skeptical of the film's veracity that I never trusted anything said or done. I was convinced the whole thing was a hoax, or a Paranormal Activity-style drama, and so I kept looking for clues about what was real or not. As it happens, Aimee Gonzales -- the face of the fake Megan Faccio -- was in attendance at the screening I saw, and offered an impromptu Q&A afterward. (She lives in Vancouver, WA, and I can't help but wonder if she comes to town and does a lot of these, if she hung out all day, or if I got lucky by seeing the primetime 7:20 showing on a Friday night.) Hearing some more outside-the-film details from her, including details of a filmed but unused ending in which she and her husband are flown to New York to meet with Nev for an excruciatingly awkward and mixed-emotions first encounter, made me accept more of the veracity of the claim. Angela, the master of so many Facebook sockpuppets, gets painted as a slightly less sympathetic character in Aimee's eyes, which is not surprising, all things considered.
But as to the film itself (as fascinating as the actual story is, I ought to judge Catfish as the film it is and not the story it's based on), I have to say I was really impressed. I mean, the seams of a budgetless documentary shot on point-and-shoots and cellphones certainly shows, but the narrative structure and control of story throughout is grand, including several scenes, interviews, and monologues edited in such a way as to weave layers of visual meaning and build complicated themes out of what could have just been a straightforward this-then-this-then-this story. (Just watch one of the last scenes, in which husband Vince gives a strange bit of wisdom which gives the film its title.)
Further, the sequence when they go to what is supposedly Megan's farmhouse in the middle of the night and discover it empty (abandoned? I was confused about the existence of the penny postcards in the mailbox otherwise... that part felt somewhat staged to me) was incredibly tense, almost horror-movie suspenseful. From a narrative standpoint, the protagonist Nev makes bold choices throughout, has several moments of weakness and self-doubt around halfway through (which he overcomes), and grows and changes as a person from his ordeal. He begins the story a handsome hero, goes on a life-changing journey, and comes home to find that the world doesn't seem the same as when he left -- he's no longer happy to be filmed, he no longer enjoys the packages from Angela, even though he knows the "truth" now. So, tight editing, smart storytelling, bold filmmaking, fascinating protagonists and a hero's journey structure. It almost feels too perfect somehow. Even after listening to Aimee Gonzales it just doesn't quite sit right.
I like this story a lot, and if it's all (or mostly) true they're incredibly lucky to have caught it all and incredibly smart and skilled to put it together the way they did. If the whole thing or sufficient amounts of it are fabricated to tell a story about shifting identities, paranoia, and facing the emotional perils of trusting the digital world so readily, then they've done a very good job of that, as well. Either way, this is a good film.
It's also, by coincidence, the first documentary I've watched all year.
Seen at Regal Lloyd Center Cinemas.