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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It’s 3am or a similarly ridiculous hour. The sane and the content are asleep in the warm darkness of their beds. I however ignore the tension in my forehead, the heavy strains choking my eyeballs. I sit eagerly forward, glowing in the light of my laptop, waiting. Waiting for that friend request to be confirmed, waiting for someone to comment on my attention seeking status, waiting for the boyfriend of the girl I love to slap another obscene, boastful, sexual comment triumphantly on her wall. I trawl mindlessly through the indecipherable, identical and idiotic ramblings of countless school colleagues; people I might have spoken to once or twice, but are now destined to provide endless commentary of their life’s ups and downs direct to my inbox. This is the grim everyday reality of Facebook, The Social Network.
It’s a reality that rarely rears its ugly head throughout David Fincher’s latest project, only truly doing so at the end of the film with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, masterfully played by Jesse Eisenberg, reduced to hitting refresh on a friend request, hellishly bound to his own creation. However whilst this is a glamorised tale of unnaturally razor tongued geeky geniuses that can feel artificial at times, The Social Network does not lose sight of the fact that all the boardroom drama and billions of dollars stems from the clever exploitation of darker, depressing human traits lurking beneath the surface of brilliance.
Thanks to Aaron Sorkin’s script of lightning paced, sharp and witty dialogue though, brilliance is a prominent feature of the movie. It’s ironic given the reams of pointless, idiotic dribble vomited onto Facebook each day that every other line in The Social Network is a cool summary of the times or a cutting riposte. Ironic too that the film reveals the drunken origins of Facebook as “facemash”, a crude tool for comparing the attractiveness of Harvard undergraduates, conceived as the ultimate retaliation to be being (deservedly) dumped. The brutal simplicity of this drunken prank would foreshadow the darker changes a fully evolved Facebook would impose upon our lives.
For all the grand ideas and themes raised in Sorkin’s excellent script there is also brilliance in the characterisation and storytelling; fundamentals for an enjoyable cinema experience. There are countless superb one-liners and the film opens with a quick, emotionally charged and frustrating verbal duel, culminating in Zuckerberg being labelled an arsehole. The film ties together nicely with a neat structure when he is acquitted of being an arsehole (kind of) at the end. There are bags of humour and tension to be had in the court scenes, which flashback to the Harvard days of creating “thefacebook”, which are beautifully shot and capture the frenzy as the idea spirals beyond the imaginings of its authors.
Whilst critics may agree that Sorkin’s script is the most brilliant feature of The Social Network, there are numerous other marks of quality ensuring it is being talked about as one of the films of the year. David Fincher’s direction has been singled out for producing a visually stunning production. He is also responsible for getting the best out of Sorkin’s script by having it read faster than intended at times, perfectly matching the machine-like detachment of the computer nerds’ personalities. These nerds are also brilliantly portrayed by some outstanding acting. Eisenberg seems perfectly cast as the strangely likeable, slimy architect of the whole thing, Mark Zuckerberg and Justin Timberlake has been widely praised for an assured performance as Napster founder Sean Parker. For me young British actor Andrew Garfield, star of Channel 4’s Red Riding and recently cast as the new Spiderman, was most impressive as co-founder but intellectually and morally out of his depth business student Eduardo Saverin. Garfield’s character is the audience’s way into a world of untouchable smart arses and elites and his performance is pitch perfect from the giddy highs to the panicky, incomprehensible lows. Armie Hammer provides the humour as the Winklevoss twins (his face was digitally reproduced onto that of another actor) and the film is also mesmerizingly scored at times, from the intoxicating party scenes, to moments of corporate despair and sporting drama.
All in all The Social Network is a film that for once largely lives up the cleverly marketed hype drummed up around it. It may not be entirely factually accurate but it is all the more entertaining and meaningful for telling a dramatic story with engaging characters, as opposed to slipping into documentary mode at times as Fincher’s previous work Zodiac was prone to do.
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