1. The question of authorship of a film is one that critics and observers simplify for the sake of narrative. We all subconsciously subscribe to the auteur theory, the notion that a film’s author is its director, as if it were a novelist and his/her book, or a songwriter and his/her album. Obviously, a film has no such singularity; hundreds of people work on a single film, and depending on the temperament of a particular director, he/she either meticulously lorded over every detail or simply supervised the talent beneath him/her, more a movie’s CEO than its dictator. To keep matters simple in the world of criticism, we typically assign all the credit or all the blame on the director, because otherwise, reviewing films would be impossible. (“A- work for the gaffer, but a clear D+ for the shoddy catering.”) If a movie pleases us, we want someone to thank; if it enrages, we want a target.
2. A film like “Catfish” confounds all these ideas, because the aspects of the film that are so compelling and so moving seem not only accidental, but in fact antithetical to what the filmmakers intended in the first place. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman decided, on a whim (and in a clumsy enough fashion that one wonders whether they just invented a backstory to justify the story they ultimately stumble upon) to document Ariel’s brother’s Nev’s flirtations with a 19-year-old from Michigan he met online and her apparent family of genius artists. Nev receives gorgeous, haunting paintings from Megan’s savant little sister, talks with Megan and her mother Angela on the phone and even exchanges ribald text messages with her. For the first half of the film, we’re never quite sure why we’re watching all this. Nev’s a dull, empty guy — he has a back tattoo, a “tramp stamp” that brands him as a rather specific type of Manhattan specimen — and his interactions with this online family are a series of pointless scenes that go nowhere. (Dev consistently reminds us, inadvertently, how boring it is to watch someone find himself charming.) Then, in a far too pat to be believable revelation, they come across some inconsistencies in Megan’s stories — she’s sending Nev supposed original recordings that are easily proven as other people’s songs — and decide that they will fly to Michigan to confront her. Why? Because they’re filmmakers, and they’re bored. They have no idea what they’re about to discover.
3. The feeling of mystery you have through most of “Catfish,” the truly disoriented “where in the world is this movie going?” is ultimately revealed to be due to the filmmakers’ strange belief that they are interesting. But what they find in Michigan more than makes up for it, even if they don’t realize it at the time. As it turns out — and here is the TURN AWAY BECAUSE THE MOVIE’S ABOUT TO GET SPOILED warning — the Megan Nev has been talking to, the painter, the text-messenger, the cavalcade of Facebook people who know Megan and have been corresponding with Nev accordingly … they’re all Angela, a 40-something heavyset woman who is married to the father of two severely “retarded” (in her words) children. The whole time, it was her, changing her voice tone, sending Nev the paintings, exchanging the text messages, even inventing fake Facebook identities in order to keep up the ruse. This is not entirely shocking to the audience or the filmmakers, and the only real mystery left, at this point, is why Angela chose tramp-stamped Nev to be the object of her affections. The answer is that he kept writing back, which is to say: The answer is because his brother and his friend were making a movie. And have now shown up on her doorstep, with hidden mics and cameras. Which makes one wonder who, exactly, is the worse deceiver here?
4. We’ve described a rather dreary movie here, and if this were all it were, just these three dopes trying to humiliate a lonely woman, it surely would never have made it to theaters in the first place. (Only Joost pauses for a moment to note that maybe they’re being a little exploitative of this poor lady; the other two want blood.) But then when meet her. Her name is Angela Wesselman, and she is a true artist in the way none of the boys are. Her paintings are full of hard-earned sadness, and raising two developmentally children under difficult conditions have given her an understanding of life they’ll never have, or at least don’t have now. She stops to paint Nev one last time, telling the story of her deception, and she is oddly matter-of-fact, as if describing herself from afar. Her interactions were an escape from her trying life, but not a permanent one: It was a diversion, in a way, another piece of art. As her nonplussed husband says, she loves her life, even if it sometimes hinders her self-expression and engagement with outside humanity. Closed off from the world that Nev and his buddies take for granted, it was another project, done out of fear and curiosity and, yeah, maybe some wish-fulfillment. It was harmless. Or else it would have been, had it not been for the guys with the camera following her fake man around. Once they see her, it’s little surprise they don’t know what to do with her.
5. This is to say: A film in which we spend an hour with these three dopes from Soho should have dispensed with each of them and just focused on this fascinating, lonely, quietly powerful woman from Michigan. Of course, that wouldn’t sell, that wouldn’t be marketable, that wouldn’t have made them the hot documentary at Sundance. Thinking back about the movie, a scene when Nev giggles into the camera about a sensual text-message exchange makes us want to put him through a wall. Who are you, buddy? At some point, these guys needed a grownup to tell them to chuck all the business about their supposed journey, and the “twists and turns” of their pseudo-documentary, and just do a whole movie about Angela Wesselman. Perhaps she could have been that grownup. But she was too busy living, experiencing the world as it really is, not the way they’d like themselves to be portrayed at a press conference. We have to thank the Schulman brothers for introducing us to Angela Wesselman, a woman the sort is never seen in movies, documentary or others. But that’s all we have to thank them for.