21st-Century Love Letters
The ambitions that Mark Zuckerberg had for Facebook — at least what we see of them in The Social Network — seem so small and sad and deeply ungrand next to the reality of how life on Facebook plays out a mere few years later in the profoundly poignant Catfish. It’s no coincidence that these two movies came along at the same time, because in so short a period of time, Facebook has changed much of how we interact with one another. Not for everyone, but for enough people that it surely has altered our cultural perceptions on the whole about what friendship is (or what it should be), what constitutes an emotional connection, and how we trust — or don’t — today. It’s almost as if our entire society has been having a sort of nervous breakdown (which could be said to be happening in lots of public arenas, not just as represented by Facebook), and hasn’t figured out how to resolve it, or what life will look like on the other side of it. The uncertainty and the ache in the air almost had to birth films like these as part of our attempts to work through it.
A true-life tragi-dramedy, Catfish is an exhilarating film in its intimacy, its boundary-pushing, its emotional rawness. Filmmaking partners Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman are constantly filming each other, as well as Ariel’s photographer younger brother, Nev, who shares New York City offices with them, just for fun, which is how they happened, by chance, to have captured the beginnings of an Internet romantic odyssey Nev embarked upon in the early days of the public Facebook (after it was opened up to everyone outside Ivy League schools, that is). By the time Joost and the elder Schulman realize they’ve got the makings of an actual documentary on their hands — more on that in a bit — they have enough snippets of how the story began to tell it.
It starts when Nev receives an email from Abby, an eight-year-old budding painter in rural Michigan, who has copied on canvas, with a remarkable flair for so young an artist, a photograph Nev took of ballet dancers — dance is one of Nev’s obsessions — that appeared on a magazine cover. Nev is flattered, Abby is excited to have made a friend in the big city, and an email friendship is born, one that eventually extends to regular phone calls with Abby’s mother, Angela, and the exchanging of artistic care packages. Then, Nev “meets” Abby’s older sister, Megan, on Facebook: she is a beautiful young woman, a musician and dancer and animal lover, and Nev is instantly smitten. And so is Megan.
At this point, we in the audience cannot help but be a tad suspicious of the whole situation, which seems a little too good to be true. We’ve seen, say, that famous New Yorker cartoon about how no one on the Internet knows you’re a dog. Then again, so has, presumably, Nev (as well as Joost and Schulman), who is hardly the caricature of the “Internet loser” we’re supposed to accept as prone to being taken in by promises of love and sex online: Nev is gorgeous and talented and charismatic, and it’s impossible to believe that he doesn’t have lots of lovely women dripping off him in New York.
But there’s a new kind of romance to be found online, and it’s the old-fashioned kind that used to be conducted via love letters. It’s the slow discovery of a new lover through words, through the exchange of thoughts and feelings before anything gets physical. It’s easy to see the attraction of this. It’s easy to see why Nev was vulnerable, because anyone would be.
So: the complicated relationship Nev has developed with Megan and her family — still conducted entirely long-distance via telecommunications and the by-mail care packages — comes to a sudden moment of crisis, when Nev starts to doubt the whole thing, in one astonishing sequence the likes of which a planned documentary may never have captured. Nev is utterly discombobulated, and begs Joost and his brother to stop filming. The scene is disconcerting, not only for Nev’s pain but for the sudden ethical quandaries it tosses out, for us and for the filmmakers. Should they have made this movie in the first place? Should they have stopped filming instead of cajoling Nev into continuing? That last question is an especially tough one for us to answer, since we don’t know Nev or his limits, as presumably Joost and his brother do… though they also clearly had a strong incentive to keep him involved, with the smell of a real story hanging so strongly in the air. However the three resolved it, filming does continue, now with the conscious decision that however it all turns out, they are official making a documentary. And they will force it to a conclusion, one way or another, because they’re going to Michigan to confront Megan and Angela…
If Catfish was an emotional roller coaster up till now, it’s nothing compared to what happens once the guys reach Michigan. What they find is nothing I expected… and how I felt about what they found is not a reaction I could have predicted for myself, either. It’s a representation of a different kind of search for emotional connection, a reaching for a fantasy — as Nev’s relationship with Megan always was, too, of course — that was inevitably going to disappoint. It’s a thing that could only have been possible with the Internet, but the Internet did not invent the longing that made it possible: the Internet only gave it a venue it couldn’t have had before.
Everyone who uses the Internet on a regular basis needs to see this film: you may have already lived some of it. And in a way, we all are already living in.