October 6, 2010

Catfish: The Real Danger Of Social Media

catfish poster.jpg

wild guess... is it a catfish?

Catfish is a movie about a guy who has a facebook relationship with a woman, and then goes to meet her and discovers...  should I say  "spoilers below?"

Spoil what?  "The twist ending!"  What twist?  Darth Vader is Luke's father is a twist, Katherine Heigl is annoying is not a twist, it's a premise.  Saying there is a twist ending is a vicious restructuring of the definitions of "twist" and "is."

"You'll never believe what happens..."   Yes you will.  Exactly what you think happens, happens.  The real mystery is why he never thought this would happen.

But you should see the movie anyway.

Cue trailer:

Not a twist:  Uber-hott 19 yo Megan isn't really uber-hott, 19, or Megan.  Huh.  The only thing you don't know is if when he looks in that garage he sees Chthulu eating fetuses, or nothing.  Twist: nothing.

But you're not watching this movie for the twist.  This is, surprisingly, a movie you can watch a dozen times for reasons different than the critics noted.

Here's the plot: Nev gets drawn into on online relationship with a really hot 19 year old.  Nine (9) months later begins to suspect something is not right, and so he drives the surviving members of REM up to her Michigan farm to get to the truth.

catfish rem.jpg
The truth is that "Megan" is really "Angela": a middle age, middle America homely housewife with a facebook account.  What does it all mean?   Cue obligatory "on the internet, no one knows you're a dog."



But what's most interesting about Catfish isn't that the Internet allowed a smart filmmaker to be bamboozled for months by a make-believe Michigan family. It's that the Internet allowed him to figure it out, track them down and make a movie about it.

Funny, that's not what I thought was interesting.  Maybe it was the subtitles, but the Korean bootleg I saw was about three megalomaniacs who actually believed it was completely ok to go a woman's house in the middle of the night, unannounced.

catfish looking in garage.jpg

Don't be sucked in by the perspective, which in the movie is all theirs.  Pretend you're the coroner: two people are reading the other's potentially unreliable online information, and one of them starts driving towards the other.  Is that the version you saw in the theater?  That's the real plot of the movie, and when you're able to see it like that you see that the true problem of online contact isn't what's posted online but who is reading.  If a murderer posts a fake bikini facebook photo, and you show up at his house with suntan oil and a inflated expectations, you're the problem.

The problem of perspective is the true caution of the movie, missed by everyone.  We value Nev's perspective more because he made the movie, but also because it features (not just uses) cameras, Google Maps, all of which are signals of neutrality, objectivity.  If someone else made the movie about him and these events, you'd be aware of his insanity immediately.  But by cleverly making the movie a POV, you're drawn into seeing things only his way. 

Even the above Gawker critic couldn't not see it from Nev's perspective.   Of course the woman lied to him, but didn't he then turn and force himself into her real life only to make a movie?  Isn't that worse?   Make no mistake, this is a documentary of narcissism supported by the Apple catalog.  If there was any movie that exemplified "a narcissist is one who sees himself as the main character in his own movie, and everyone else is merely supporting cast," it's Catfish.  At one point he's frustrated by how his director-brother is pushing him to  continue in the movie, and he says angrily but with no irony, "yeah, but this is about my life, okay?"  Okay, wildman, settle down, we got it, it's your life, not hers.


Here's the first clue you're in the presence of delusionality: at no point do any of these three ask the most basic and obvious question, why would this chick be interested in Nev?  This isn't an insult, this is a legit query.  Why would she want him?  We understand why he would want her,  but for the nine months of the movie, he has no sex with any other woman.  "Well we can't all be as smooth as you."  I sympathize, but you're missing the point: no one else who can see him wants him, but she does?  That doesn't require some self-reflection?

"He charmed her." Slow down.  "Megan" probably has had some experience being charmed, right?   At one point, she texts that she's baking a pie, "I'll save you a piece."  Guess what he does with that.  No, you'll never guess.  Comedy gold.  This guy delivers the obvious like he's writing for Daniel Tosh. 

There is an absence of self-awareness coupled with an overflow of self-absorption.  "Of course me!"

Put this in the reverse: at the end, when he discovers that he's been talking to a homely midwest mom, his friends explain that the mom is probably in love with him-- implying that of course a fat midwestern mom would fall for dashing New York sophisticate.  That makes total sense.  Even when they know that Megan must be an imposter,  it never occurs to them that whoever the woman actually is might take one look at Nev and say, "hold on, you can't be the guy... is this a radio bit?" 

The problem of this movie-- which perfectly encapsulates the most basic problem with America-- is that it doesn't occur to the audience either.   We've tricked ourselves into thinking that it's a completely expected that people will see us the way we want to be seen.  And so any divergences from this must be quite obviously mean the other person is a jerk.


An example.  Let's review some basic facts about Nev because he considers them important enough to put in his movie.   First, he wears a retainer.  I know, I know, it's not cosmetic, it's for TMJ.  Second, he spends an awful lot of time hanging out in his bed in nothing but his briefs, which only look like Spiderman Underoos because they are red.  They're not Underoos.  They're just red.

He loves the feel of a fluffy down comforter on his naked skin, that much is obvious.

See that pic, above, where he's sneaking up the dark driveway to peer into the garage of the mystery family that for all he knows could be cannibals?   He's barefoot.   When he's thinking about the malleability of identity he likes to stick his hand down his pants.  In fact, what he likes on his body even more than a down comforter is his hands-- he is constantly touching, rubbing, hugging his own body.  I can say with complete certainty that this guy pees sitting down and still gets the seat wet.  And you know how some guys think it's sexy when a girl has a tattoo of a sun or wings on their tailbone?  Well, Nev likes them so much he has one on his tailbone.   I'm sure there's a funny story behind that, but I can assure you it's irrelevant.

So?  So my reaction to all this was that Nev was utterly, genuinely, hateable, somewhere on the level of a Snookie or a David Hasselhoff or the Asian chick on Grey's Anatomy.  He smiles like a Scientologist, he's monumentally passive aggressive-- I hated this guy.  Hold on-- I realize that my own natural self-loathing hovers around an unhealthy 105%, hence the rum, but the point is that Nev-- as portrayed in this movie-- would never imagine that he generates this reaction in anyone.  He probably can imagine people not liking the movie, but why would anyone hate him?  It's inconceivable!


One final example.  Angela lives with two severely retarded children.  They are stepsons; this is the life she chose.  Through tears, she tells Nev that when she got married, she knew she'd be making some sacrifices, but she didn't realize that in fact she'd be "resigning from her own life."

So, she's telling him this because she wants some affirmation, not because she wants him to fix it.  How could he?  But Nev doesn't hesitate to repeat all of this to the husband during his interview.  "You know, Angela told me that she feels like she gave up a lot..."   There are two possibilities.  One is that Nev thought he was so much more intelligent and empathic and nuanced than this stupid hick-- never mind that he's been able to support a very pretty and well maintained home, and everyone in there seems happy, keeps all their needs and a decade long marriage intact-- that aside, Douchekata figures he can Dr. Phil a decade long wound in their marriage with nine seconds of HD footage.  The second possibility is that he didn't even want to do that, he just wanted to split the wound open because he needed the shot.  I'm not sure which is worse, but I hated him just in case it was both.


Go another way: so Angela lied to them about her identity.  So what?  Who says they were entitled to the truth?

When they arrive at Megan/Angela's house and meet everyone they are on edge, what's going on here, none of this seems like Facebook?  The family, especially the husband, is very friendly and cordial, but it could have gone the other way:   what kind of nuts are these?  He traveled all this way to meet a girl?  That makes it normal?  "We want answers."  You better keep your hands where I can see them.  And why does Nev expect others to assume he is  trustworthy?  Because of what he wrote about himself on facebook?  Haven't we established that that stuff is unreliable? 

Well, let's look at his facebook, then: he's cut out a picture of her, naked, and put it onto a picture of himself, naked.  You know who does that?  People who narrate their reality.

catfish stalker pics.jpg
"It rubs the lotion on its skin or it gets the hose."  This photo creeps me out so much I had to stop drinking.  Yeah.  On the drive to her house, shouldn't he have to call the Michigan police and register, or something?

It cannot occur to them that what they are doing is wrong because it isn't wrong-- there are no Right and Wrongs, there are only his right and wrongs.  They have a need to know, they want to meet her, so it's all ok.  The movie trailer plays like a horror movie, yet they don't feel any fear at all, which is weird, right?  You know Megan isn't Megan and you know you're wearing red underwear, shouldn't you bring backup or something?   As bad, neither do they worry that someone might be scared of three strange men in the dark.  Look up at that picture.  Why should anyone trust them?  If you come at me and say, "hey, are you the guy who writes The Last Psychiatrist?" then you better come at me strong because I will take you down.

The critics will deftly signal without spoiling that this isn't really a horror movie.    Let me correct that right now: it is absolutely a horror movie.  Fortunately for Angela, the psychopaths just happen to be pussies.


There is a line, and that line is online.  The agreement we've all accepted, it is there in your ISP contract, is that we are willing to trade exhibitionism/voyeurism for greater respect in real life.  Or, less privacy online for more privacy offline.  The girl on facebook "agrees" to use a  bikini profile pic because you agree not to stalk her, in fact, you agree not to mention it to her in person at all.  That's the deal.  If you say, "hey, I saw your pics on facebook and I wanted to meet you,"  she is allowed/encouraged to go Desert Shield on you.  That's the deal.

This is why huge corporations can't fire people based on what they did online. "Well, we don't want that kind of person working here."  They're all that kind of person, you're that kind of person, every one of us carries around multiple shames that would exclude us from society, let alone Walmart.  It is information bias, just because you know she is a slut or he is a racist doesn't mean that everyone else isn't.  Why does so much of us have to be in the job?  Jobs suck, we do them in spite of ourselves.  Asking me to clean up my online profile because you want to pay me $11/hr is a bit much.  Shut it.

It's the same deal that goes with sexy clothing.  The contract is, you show a lot of cleavage, we don't stare.  That's the deal, not the reverse, not the "well she put it out there so I can stare."  None of this is conscious, explicit, it's SOCIETY.  When we start staring too much, they'll start covering up/getting private security.  And society changes.  It's a symbiosis that is always in flux, and this is where it stands 2010.  Like it or not.

"Well, sometimes they want you to stare at their breasts.  How can you be sure it's not you they want?  Easiest question in the world: if you're not sure, it's not you.  She'll let you look obliquely because she doesn't have control over the velocity of light, but if you stare too long expect a manicured finger in your eye.  That's the deal.

Nev breaks the deal. You can't fault him for googling and investigating, but he's not permitted to go to her house.  That's the deal.

At the end of the movie, he reveals that Megan is actually Aimee Gonzales.

catfish girl.jpg Note that he did all this because he thought she was real.  Now that everyone in America  knows she's real...

To be clear: I don't fault Nev et al for making a good movie about himself, I deeply fault all the critics (and audience members) for celebrating the wrong message.  Only-- and I can't believe I'm about to say this-- a male dominated, female-as-commodity narcissistic perspective would think that the moral of the movie is that a man might get fooled.  The real moral is that some men will drive 300 miles just on the chance that you are hot.  Imagine how far they'll go to kill you.