When I first heard about Catfish, it sounded like a ramshackle film cobbled together to capitalise on Facebook fever, and in particular, the enormous success of David Fincher’s The Social Network. Looking deeper, at the artwork and a synopsis of the plot, I was inclined to think the same thing. The visual design of the title and posters, whilst clearly modelled on the Facebook logo itself, unavoidably now conjure associations with The Social Network, a wonderfully shot, acted and scripted film that seems destined to claim best picture at the imminent Oscars ceremony. The vague summaries of the plot of Catfish all make it sound like the generic, potentially lucrative tale anyone would decide to tell about the phenomenon of social networking. It’s described as a “reality thriller” and the production companies settled on tag-lines like “Think before you click.”
But then there was the avalanche of positive critical comment surrounding the film. A quick check on Rotten Tomatoes will show up a healthy 81% fresh rating but dig deeper once again and you’ll find some reviews that give Catfish unbelievably glowing, game-changing references. It’s enthusiastically endorsed by various newspapers; The Mail, The Guardian, The Mirror, The Telegraph and The News of The World. The decisive factor that swayed me to ensure I saw it a.s.a.p. however was the recommendation of characteristically cynical movie blog, Ultra Culture.
Ultra Culture hailed Catfish as its film of 2010. The explanation of this choice is eloquent and as funny as always and does an admirable job of trying to touch on all the big, intellectual reasons Catfish is so masterfully compulsive and spot-on, as well as the smaller reasons it’s a quality piece of filmmaking. Any review of the story will fail to capture the myriad of ways it could be interpreted. Such is its nature and its accurate reflection and encapsulation of the interconnectivity of our times.
Let’s start with those smaller reasons Catfish is just, plain and simple, good. It has a captivating original soundtrack, which perfectly complements the action of the story. In many ways the soundtrack is as varied as the narrative itself, encompassing everything from sentimental, heart-warming songs to lively, modern pieces which keep things interesting during transitional moments consisting mainly of screen-shots from a computer. These in-depth snippets of technology are crucial to the feel of the film; quotes from Facebook chats, pictures, YouTube videos or Google earth animations, all handled beautifully and interestingly. Catfish feels at once relevant and familiar, without ever becoming boring.
Then there’s the dubious documentary status of the movie. Catfish falls into that guaranteed hype-inducing category of projects that may or may not be staged. Most reviewers, myself included, conclude that Catfish does not feel faked, despite some clearly crafted moments. More importantly the majority of verdicts on Catfish state in black and white that they couldn’t care less whether or not the events are real. As David Edwards in The Daily Mirror says; “Is it real? When a film’s this good, that becomes secondary.”
What’s the general gist of this snapshot of contemporary life then? Well, as is so often the case with genuinely fantastic films, to say too much would spoil the experience. It’s also so many things and deals with so many themes, that it’s impossible to categorise. Essentially though Catfish is a refreshingly hands-on, unique take on the internet, and specifically relationships conducted over the web and purely by virtual means. The key figure, Nev, begins the film receiving inspirational packages from an eight year old girl, who paints. Her creations are increasingly based on Nev’s photography and then his life and appearance in general. Nev and his filmmaking friends eventually journey to meet his artistic pen-pal and her family. Nev’s even fallen for her older sister. But who are we to know what love really is?
In many ways the transformation of the film from an uplifting hymn to the connecting, liberating power of the web into something darker, is predictable. The warnings it holds about forged identities and the potential for sinister outlets are there. But as several reviews, including Ultra Culture’s, point out, Catfish is not meant to be a powerful cautionary tale about complacent trust online. What confirms this is the surprisingly insightful explanation of the title, delivered in working class tones by a simple character as the film concludes. Catfish, he explains, were used to exercise cod fish as they were shipped on long journeys. This kept their flesh fresh and stopped them becoming tasteless. We need enigmatic, metaphorical Catfish in our lives, to “keep us on our toes” and give life spicy variety.
To inadequately sum up then: Catfish is a gripping mystery, packed with incredibly emotional moments. Its twists and turns are always beguiling, stunning and (mostly) unpredictable. It is both sinister and disturbing, and heart-warming and stirring. At 83 minutes it’s the most concise and thrilling “documentary” you’re ever likely to see. It’s funny. Most importantly of all it’s a study of the realities of our modern existence. It highlights more themes than I can mention but ultimately uncovers the unifying, depressing deceptions of millions of lives. You’ve never seen anything quite like it.
The Social Network is a worthy Oscar winner and a truly fabulous story about the origins of Facebook and the excesses of its creators. Catfish however, is the real movie about the internet, about the actual effects of social networking. I now understand the marketing around Catfish and it wasn’t all about jumping on the Facebook bandwagon. The Social Network was rarely about Facebook itself; Catfish explores some of the same universal themes of the human condition, and more, and is genuinely THE Facebook movie.
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I have recently enjoyed three excellent and thoroughly engaging novels. Each had me gripped in very different ways, but each shares the key ingredient of successful storytelling; a strong narrative voice. The extremely distinctive first person narrators of each of these novels draws you in and captivates you. A narrative voice that feels real and engaging is the element I most struggle with when trying to write my own creative works. I certainly therefore don’t feel qualified to dissect the successful and unsuccessful subtleties of the writing in these books in review form, but feel compelled to record what made them so readable for me as “thoughts”, for that is all they are, and to recommend them to others nonetheless. I may inadvertently let slip the odd slight spoiler, for which I apologise but place a warning here.
First up then is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which I admit I was only inspired to read due to the hype surrounding a forthcoming film adaptation and the allure and beauty of the trailer for it. What’s noticeable and striking even in that brief snippet of film is the overwhelming Britishness of the story and it’s a very British novel too. That sense of place comes not just from the boarding school setting, the childhood themes, the nostalgic reminisces and stunning countryside, but from the voice of the novel, Kathy H. Whilst it appears she is candidly telling her life story, with little reason or desire to embellish and hold back, you soon notice her strong focus on others, on those immediately close to her. If she criticises a friend she will qualify what she means and spend pages delving into another random memory of them to share their alternative, better side. In many ways this is a novel of memories, about the ones that slip away and the ones you never let go of. Given that she focuses on those most important to her, it’s enlightening, revealing and intriguing that she never actually says in the novel, as far as I can see or recall, that she loves the man events make clear to be her soul mate. Indeed Kathy does not spell things out about herself often and retells everything, overpowering emotions and all, with a simplicity and undertone of British restraint. It’s this restraint and modesty that is the most chokingly moving at times too. It’s clearly to Ishiguro’s immense credit that he simultaneously creates a strong, rounded character in Kathy, whilst also letting events, and things Kathy omits, paint a picture of their own. Kathy has confidence that, from what she has retold to us, she need not say explicitly “I loved him”.
I’m glad I read the original story as a novel before the release of the film in January. Despite the promise that attracted me in the trailer, Carey Mulligan will do well to play Kathy H as quite as compellingly as Ishiguro writes her. The film is also set to cut large chunks of Kathy’s childhood memories of Hailsham, in favour of the adolescent portion of the story. I hope this omission does not detract from events later on and make them less meaningful. The one fault I found with the book, and one the film will also struggle to overcome, is the sense that there is never a satisfying big conspiracy revealed, as is hinted at. The one that does emerge seemed fairly clear early on and whilst Ishiguro seems to hint that there is more to it (I had visions of some sort of apocalyptic Britain or a more interesting and dramatic disintegration of ethics) there really isn’t. Mostly though Never Let Me go is a terribly moving story because of the way it feels so real. Kathy’s language is simple but beautiful at times, like many of her memories. Her friendships and loves are not obsessively described with clichés and extravagant imagery, and are consequently all the more like our own. The way things turn out is so tragic because you can place yourself in her shoes.
I have also recently read Lee Rourke’s debut novel, The Canal, joint winner of the Guardian’s alternative award Not The Booker Prize. As the review on the Guardian website points out, this is a debut crammed with ideas. This might have been a problem if the ideas weren’t original or didn’t resonate with me, but I found most of them to be insightful and well expressed musings on a realistic truth. The novel begins as an engaging meditation on the nature of boredom and how it is a fundamental part of existence to be embraced, rather than feared and avoided. It eventually evolves into a touching love story, which becomes an obsession and climaxes with an eventful ending. Most of the novel aims accurately for realism; its ideas, its dialogue, its images. Only at the end do feelings and events become sensational.
The title of the book makes it clear that it will have a strong sense of setting and the surroundings of The Canal are ever present throughout the narrative, the backdrop to almost all the action. Its features are described with some wonderful imagery and symbolism. Even the book itself, the physical design of the novel, is pleasing to look at and hold. If I were Rourke I’d be delighted with the tasteful design of my first fictional foray. He ought to be proud too of the dialogue in his work, which really stands out as exceptionally believable and realistic, becoming almost a script at times before reverting back to the narrator’s thoughts. The dialogue is rightly praised on the back of the book.
Like Never Let Me Go, much of The Canal’s success comes down to the convincing narrative voice. However if Kathy H was restrained, the nameless narrator of The Canal is mysterious. The woman he meets on The Canal is also mysterious, until he slowly uncovers her secrets. She is for the most part a rounded character and their relationship believable, but at times it succumbs to cliché. There are other clichés too such as the stereotypical gang of youths and the unstoppable march of building work that eventually swallows his patch of The Canal. These unimaginative elements let down the originality and realism of the rest of the book, but The Canal was an engaging, un-put-down-able read.
If The Canal mused about boredom then The Dice Man is a full on exploration of its depths and connections to the meaning of existence. The main reason I was reluctant to be bold enough to call these thoughts of mine a review was that The Dice Man is simply too mammoth, sprawling and impressive a work for me to digest, let alone analyse adequately. It’s jam packed with ideas and full of such variety that it touches on more areas in one chapter than most novels. It has spawned a cult and resembles a bible in weight and heft. It’s immensely controversial, challenging long established truths in religion and philosophy, outraging those with a strong moral compass. It contains scenes that are graphically violent and sexual. It is regularly and consistently funny. However as with The Canal, it is the quality of composition and writing that truly impresses me with The Dice Man.
From the very first page The Dice Man makes it clear it will not follow the conventions of an ordinary novel, but mimic several at once. It flits from the brilliantly cynical and scathing first person voice of Dr Lucius Rhinehart, to describing events in his life in the third person. It also chucks in various articles about events in the Dr’s life, along with other methods of storytelling such as transcripts of interviews and television shows. With all the talk of ideas, philosophy and sex surrounding The Dice Man, it can be forgotten that it is an exemplary exercise in creative writing, full of tremendous variety. The dialogue is always funny and realistic and the characters well realised, albeit obviously through the lens of Dr Rhinehart’s own entertaining, intelligent opinions. There are narrative twists and turns, violent thrills and sexual ones. The careful craft and exciting breadth of this novel ensures that a novel of over 500 pages remains gripping throughout. It consumed me for a whole week.
Then of course there are the ideas themselves, the philosophy behind The Dice Man. The reason this book has become so notorious and actually converted readers to the “religion” detailed within its pages, is that many of the ideas make sense, that and the alluring mystery to it all. The mystery blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality. Luke Rhinehart is of course a pseudonym, but a quick Wikipedia search on The Dice Man and you discover the real author, George Cockroft, also genuinely experimented with the “dicelife”. So there is some truth to the claims that this a factual account and that may account for its vivid detail. However it is also undoubtedly a sensational work of fiction, at times taking swipes at the profession of psychology and the state of society in general. I have already said that as a novel it should be praised and not revered simply for its bold ideas, but it is true that the seductiveness of the ideas help sweep you along in the story.
The basic principle of The Dice Man is to abandon free will, at least to a great extent. Every decision in your life you are unsure about should be decided by the throw of a dice, and in fact later on, even those you do feel sure of. You may create options for the various numbers of the dice or die, but whichever they choose you must blindly follow. The options must try to embrace all aspects of your multiple existence, so for example if you have idly fantasised about masturbating over your pot plant, even for a second, this ought to be considered and given to the die to decide. The aforementioned variety and randomness of the novel thus mimics the theory at its heart, with one section actually printed twice immediately after you have read it, presumably at the will of the die.
The philosophical implications of handing over control of a human life to chance are vast and fascinating and I shall not even scratch the surface of their interest here. But Rhinehart comes to believe in the novel that by following the dice and developing his theory he can become a kind of superman, the ultimate human that abandons the misery imposed on us by clinging to a sense of “self”. We often feel completely contradictory desires each day, none more true than the other. What is truly haunting and bewildering about The Dice Man is that by listening to Rhinehart’s distinctive, cynical, hilarious voice, we come to see the sense to his arguments and then when he commits an unspeakable sin at the will of the dice, we feel implicated too. Does a truly liberated human existence require immorality? Rhinehart becomes obsessed by the potential of his simple idea to elevate him intellectually, to truly free him from boredom and obligation. He says that he resembles Clark Kent and by pursuing “dice theory” Rhinehart aims for a permanent transformation into Superman, The Dice Man, on another level to the ordinary human drone.
I’m not saying The Dice Man is the perfect novel, do not misunderstand my awe and praise. At times it left me baffled in completely the wrong way, and despite its championing of the random and new experiences, it can become repetitive, particularly the frequent bouts of sex. And whilst it is sometimes credibly intellectual and inspiring, such as the scene when Rhinehart defends his new theory to a panel of his influential peers, at others it does appear to be simply sick and shocking for shocking’s sake. The thing is that The Dice Man knows it is not the perfect novel, in fact its cynicism screams and mocks the idea of a perfect novel being possible. Even the repetitive sex scenes are always evocatively described or hilariously painted and the idea that a man striving for complete liberty is constantly tied down by sexual desire is ironic and mocking in itself. The Dice Man really is often laugh out loud funny. It is also scandalous, entertaining and everything else it has been described as. Most of all it is an original creation, a unique fusion of cultural influences, which perfectly encapsulates the America of its time and remains powerfully relevant today.
These three novels perhaps demonstrate the importance of two ingredients in particular amongst the many needed for a success: interesting ideas and an individual narrative voice.
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