If "The Social Network," a partly-fictional rendition of Facebook's founding, is version 2.0 of "The Great Gatsby" or "Citizen Kane," then "Catfish," a clever new documentary about fantasy, desire, and the slippery place of truth online, is "The Wizard of Oz" for the Internet generation. As the burgeoning "Facebook" genre goes, it's the far more interesting, bedeviling and provocative film. I mean, "It's complicated."
The documentary revolves around a big mystery and a revelation, leading the Financial Times to compare it to Hitchcock, a description that's both lazy and right-on (but more on that later). It's not giving too much away to lay the updated scene: a teasing Facebook friend, Meagan, plays the Wizard, a bored New York photographer named Nev is Dorothy, and the "information superhighway" stands in as the Yellow Brick Road.
The protagonists’ real arrival in Oz - the "We’re not in Kansas anymore" moment – comes halfway through the movie, when Nev and his brother and friend decide that things have gotten too strange, and that they must actually go to meet the Wizard at her home, armed to the teeth, of course, with little digital cameras. And suddenly, the digital paths of their correspondence, up until now registered in the digital routing of Gchats, text messages, and naïve late night phone chats, give way to an actual road.
"Reality" hasn't set in yet; desire and fantasy and a suspension of disbelief are all still in play. As with Dorothy’s Technicolor arrival in Oz, Nev’s voyage somewhere over the double rainbow comes with its own stylistic shift. Instead of simply shots of the interstate, most of the trip is described in zippy, zoomed-in Google Earth animation, some hypnotic fast forwarding, and then a Street View depiction of the road, jerking forward in blurry freeze frames; the navigation screen of the car’s GPS makes an appearance, as does a screen capture of the trip on Google Maps, from above, a single red line illustrating the path.
With its blurred edges and choppy, high-speed movement – an accidental correlative of the filmmakers’ own nonchalant hand-held style (or is it the other way around?) – the scenes are a far cry from the celebratory prettiness of the Hollywood cinema or the art house: this is haphazard, dull-colored, immediate, undigested, completely unadorned. And it would be shocking, if it weren’t so normal to see the world this way.
And maybe that’s what’s most shocking: that it’s not just normal to see the world like this, it’s strangely comforting. There is a sense of control to the world in virtual: think of how our smart phones have become indispensable safety blankets on even the most cursory trip across town, our guides to the world as video game, with our dot in the center. And think of how much we glean from our Facebook analysis, our Google searches: in a matter of minutes, they offer us more information about the world and the people around us than people of earlier generations could hope to gather over lifetimes of making friends.
It’s clear then, as the line pushes on and as the music pulses and the pace quickens, that entering the real world is not going to be easy. What the heavy and eye-grabbing and hypnotic use of Google travel does best is to give some hint of that anxious gap between the simulated road that we have come to expect from our gadgets’ augmented realities, and the world as we see it with our eyes and ears. The distance between "content" and substance, data and knowledge.
But even as the film makes this gap explicit - warning us, that if we abandon the Cave, things will not be as they once seemed - it also perpetuates another layer of virtuality, this one older and more complicated, but not by much: the documentary film. With its promise to show the world not as Hollywood would fantasize it but as it is, there is something as comforting in the medium of documentary as there may be in the information offered by the Internet.
In place of the lenses of Google and Facebook, which all but disappear from the film in its second act, we end up with the lens of the camera. Forcefully verite, the camerawork aims at a direct connection with reality: like some of the actual cameras, concealed under clothes or in the palms of hands, the camera in a film like this wants to be invisible. And in wanting so hard to seem real in a world laced with truthiness, with performances, with the presentations that make up the mediated life, Catfish inadvertently offers some valuable reminders, if we can actually pull away from the constant stream of updates and think about it.
The questions that circulate around the film - about its veracity and accuracy and deccency - aren’t incidental to the film: they are part of its force, and they are also irrelevant. In a fact-laced story ("not based on actual events" says the motto) about truth, the question of whether the film is "true" becomes the animating force. Concern over the truth of the film is precisely the truth of the film. (Hitchcock had "the McGuffin," but the boys of Catfish have something more meta; let’s just call it "the Catfish.") To anyone who has really lived on the Internet - and I mean anyone who has taken the Internet as some representation of real life, who has carried out parts of real life relationships on Gtalk or traipsed through the fantastic wilds of Craigslist - this uncanny relationship with the truth should sound a bit familiar.
There is Catfish's greatest catch: the film’s metaphorical ability to capture what makes social networking so bedeviling. It’s a documentary not just about making a documentary, but about lives-as-documentaries, the identities we build, the selves we perform, the deceptions we make and to which we submit, in the name of information and "truth." An increasingly relentless, irresistibly fascinating look at the lives of others, in all their reality, in all their contrivances, in all their heavily contrived appearance of reality. In that sense – the film as social network and vice versa - the word "documentary" betrays its weaknesses, its seams. Its makers don’t even insist on calling it a documentary.
Instead what we have is more like a carefully constructed montage, a virtualized version of the chaotic and unreal cities that our culture has triumphed since the start of the Industrial Revolution, shot appropriately in self-conscious Flip style. The film’s main locations directly echo the narrative arc that a character describes in Catfish's truth-meets-fiction cousin, The Social Network: "We lived on farms and we moved to cities, and in the future we’ll be living on the Internet!"
All of the contemporary anxieties aside, all of its up-to-the-minute currency, the film is still a film: like any old fashioned movie, its narrative moves in a straight line towards a denouement that can be either so profound, stunning, or bewildering so as to be insightful. Facebook, with all of its pervasiveness, its penetration, its endless and many-directional streams of links and updates and pictures and videos and likes - with all of its marketing - is anything but straight. It’s more like the endless film that Walter Benjamin envisioned we would all be living in some day. So we live in this public film, we live in this city. But - and this puts aside the sometimes suspect behavior of the CEOs of Facebook and Google – we have no clear mayor, no director, other than ourselves and our friends and even perhaps people we haven’t yet met.
This is the movie's recursive motif: the more we live in the bright white glow of our virtual world, the more the real one starts to look like a dark, cold, and haunted forest, a place we can sometimes forget how to inhabit. There are signs to alert us to oncoming dangers, but we have to know how to read them. There are more friends out there, whatever that means. And there are also more lions and tigers and bears too.
But in the endless vanity and fun house mirrors of the internet, which is what profile tinkering and Googling often reminds us it is, it can be hard to tell who is what. Finally, we’re left puzzling over not who the person on the other end really is - that gets an exhaustive investigation. The mystery is who the protagonist is, how much did the filmmakers know and when, and just what were they thinking. How clever. One of the most telling moments happens inside the Wizard’s lair, when Nev escapes to the bathroom and finally turns the camera on himself to deliver something like a status update. There’s a vanity to it, obviously, but also a manipulativeness, a performance, and a false naivete.
And here too we begin to get wind of another kind of Internet behavior ported to the screen: the sideways attempt to terrorize someone by exposing them to the world. There’s a serious documentary to be made about the people whose lives have been destroyed by the Internet, in some cases literally: last week, for instance, after his roommate posted a video of him in an intimate situation with another man, 18-year-old Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge. An hour beforehand he sent a farewell to his friends by Facebook.
By this point in the film, the title’s meaning will soon be explained, but it already echoes another term, ripped from the web. "Phishing" is a ploy that begins with an innocent email or IM from a supposed friend or customer service rep – check out this link, confirm your bank details – but ends in theft, of passwords, credit card numbers, identities.
When Nev dramatically records his commentary, it’s pretty clear the filmmakers had an upper hand from the start, that the film is a weapon of sorts, in the guise of a victim’s claim. The filmmakers are the fish and the fishermen, both the innocents but the hackers. It uses the word “documentary” the way Facebook uses the word “friend”: lazily at best, distorting at worst. In the very serious, very ironic carnivalesque funhouse of the film’s final act – which comes complete, even, with deformed children, actual freaks – it’s hard to tell where the infinite mirror of the internet ends and the infinite mirror of the film begins. It’s brilliant, and it’s sick: the stuff that Internet hits are made of.
If we had to find the film’s final hook in this dizzying series, we could look at the teasing tagline on every poster: "Don’t let anyone tell you what it is." Echoing the promise of social networks, with all the revelations and information that comes with belonging or being accepted as a "friend," it urges us, “Just join and then you’ll know.” But this is a pretty challenging imperative in an era of 140-character publishing and instant updates: how can we prevent the Internet from spoiling anything? When privacy is dead, secrets aren’t just passe, but they’re nearly impossible to keep.
If we dig a little deeper, the tagline offers a more interesting challenge. We never really know what "it" refers to, and even if we did, we can’t really know what "it" is. Attempts to unpack our complicated relationship with the truth, be it on the silver screen or the computer screen, the tagline tells us, are somehow doomed. It’s a key to the film’s logic, and it’s another puzzle.
The games aside, if we take life on the Internet seriously, as we increasingly should, there are some very serious implications of Catfish, starting with its “playful” use of the term "documentary" and ending somewhere at the fringes of our notion of privacy. If we’ve ever done or said things online we wouldn’t do in real life, if we’ve ever fallen victim to a snide comment, a hack, or an untruth, we should be familiar with just how easily things can get complicated there.
We don’t have to disregard the ethical complications of the movie to enjoy it,; on the contrary, those complications are important in a document of our lives online, and the desires and fantasies that feed them. Note the implied subject of the tagline, "you," and the tagline betrays the film's deeper subject. It has turned the mirror on us, which, like the best art, is what makes it so intriguing, what brings it so uncannily close to home, or the profiles we call home pages. We're along for the ride and we're taken for a ride too, to a place far nearer and far stranger than Oz, a place where the perpetrators of fictions aren't Wizards, but all of "you," and any of your “friends.”
Reach Alex at alex at motherboard dot tv, and follow him on Twitter. He’s also on Facebook, but he would rather you not find him there.
This piece originally appeared at Motherboard.