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October 2, 2010


As I was just saying about The Social Network, identity is a very tricky thing online, and it always has been. For the most part this is harmless. People post profile pictures from oblique angles, or from years ago before they lost all that hair and gained all that weight. People are younger and richer. The average penis on the internet is almost two inches longer than in the real world. Everyone has all the time they need to craft the perfect turn of phrase, and come off wittier than they ever could face-to-face.

But there’s a darker side to online image-management. Men masquerading as women, or even children to troll for sexual thrills is the most famous, but its just the tip of the iceberg. People construct all sorts of elaborate deceptions online, like claiming to have some disease like cancer in online fora, seemingly to build relationships and garner sympathy — a condition called “Münchausen by internet”.

Catfish chronicles the friendship between a Manhattan-based photographer (Yaniv Schulman) and a young artist (Abby — her last name is always redacted) who meets him online and starts paintings based on his photographs. Her talent is surprising in such a young girl, and his filmmaker brother (Ariel Schulman) and their roommate (Henry Joost) start filming him as a documentary about her. He meets and befriends her family, and even starts developing feelings for her 19-year-old sister — all over Facebook, other online contacts, and the occasional phone call. But as time goes by, doubts start creeping in. How much does he really know about these people? And if they are having him on, why are they constructing such an elaborate ruse in the first place?

The film purports to be the documentary of their investigations from that point, and it has the rough feel of such a raw-cut documentary. Maybe the movie itself is wholly fictional, and maybe it really is exactly what it claims to be. I don’t know, and it really doesn’t matter, so I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

One of the most interesting aspects of the movie is how they use stills and video clips from various online tools to help explain the story as it plays out. Travel happens in Google Earth. A driving montage shows Google Maps’ street view shot through with the purple course line. The classic Ken Burns zoom shows up, but applied to an image on a computer screen the picture pixellates and fragments until all that’s left is the black, empty spaces the picture never really filled in in the first place.

It may not be the most polished effort in the world, and the pace is sometimes glacial, but by the time it’s over the trio have taken us on a fascinating journey across the country and into the heart of one of the mysteries permeating the online world. We’re left wondering how much we really know about those of our friends online we have no in-person knowledge of, and even about some of those we do.

Worth it: definitely. If you have the opportunity, see this movie.
Bechdel test: I don’t know if a documentary like this can really be subject to the test; if it is, it fails.

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