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About three years ago, a friend of mine at work said, “Hey, you’ve joined Facebook! Add me.” It came as a bit of a surprise because I hadn’t joined Facebook. But there was my name atop a Facebook profile, on her computer, obstinately insisting that I was indeed friends with some people she and I both know. The email given on the profile was an old, old one from my early college years. To cut a long story short, I joined Facebook essentially because I didn’t want someone else pretending to be me. It was in vain, because despite me repeatedly notifying Facebook about the fake me, that other profile remained. Within a few months, I deactivated my Facebook account because I discovered I thoroughly disliked the site and I didn’t think much of the profile that carried my name. Anyone pretending to be me would soon tire of that practical joke, I thought. It didn’t seem worth worrying over.

Then I got the DVD of “Catfish” and as I watched the imaginary Facebook lives of Angel Wesselman come undone in the docu-feature directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, my pulse thudded nervously. To those who have seen and known her, including her clunking husband, Angela is an everyday resident of Ishpeming, Michigan. She has a daughter, Abby, and two severely autistic/ mentally challenged stepsons. Her husband, Vince, is a barrel-bellied, blue-eyed man who would never stand out in a crowd. For photographer Yaniv Schulman, however, Angela is something else entirely. Yaniv met Angela on Facebook when Angela’s daughter Abby made a painting of one of his photos. Through Abby, Yaniv met Angela, Megan (Abby’s half-sister), Alex (Abby’s brother), Ryan (a friend of the family) and about 12 more people. Packages came from Michigan with gifts for Yaniv and his brother Ariel (one of the directors of “Catfish”). Yaniv spoke on the phone with Angela and soon there was something of a love affair brewing between Yaniv and Megan, who said she was a musician. One evening, Yaniv, Ariel and Henry realised that the songs that Megan and Angela said were their recordings were actually other people’s songs. Some of the tracks could be found on YouTube. One song was from the soundtrack of the show “One Tree Hill”. By this time, Ariel and Henry had been filming Yaniv for a few months because they thought there was a film to be made on Yaniv’s unusual friendship with this family and the talents of an 8 year-old girl in small-town Michigan. When they realise that Megan and Angela have been lying about their musical talents, they decide to go up to Ishpeming and figure out just what is true and what is fiction in the Wesselman family.

I won’t give away what Yaniv, Henry and Ariel find. If you think that you know, trust me when I say that it’s unlikely that you’ve figured the whole thing out. “Catfish” is a brilliant, brilliant film. The story is superbly told and the film’s editing is absolutely genius. At 1 hour 28 minutes, it’s incredibly tight and there’s not a moment when you’re not ensnared by what’s unfolding. This, ladies and gents, is the definitive Facebook film. It showcases just how fantastic and monstrously frightening the website can be. There’s nothing simple or obvious about “Catfish”, and not everything is clearly articulated; not Angela’s motivations, not Yaniv’s reactions or even whether Ariel and Henry chanced upon this incredible story or whether it’s all an elaborate set-up. By the end of the film, you’re left with a clutch of rioting feelings: sadness for the life that Angela has had, incredulity at how easy it is to con someone using Facebook, a gentle warmth at seeing a true friendship shakily develop, outright horror at how this Internetted world can steal your identity without you ever realising it, and fear at how gullible we are even when we think we’re being cautious.

I’m going to blame that impossibly long sentence, festooned with commas, upon the fact that I’m currently reading one Leo Tolstoy, who made sentences go on for entire paragraphs.

“Catfish” is an amazing film, and definitely one of the best from last year. It is scarily contemporary and it will leave you reeling. There’s been some speculation about whether it really is a documentary and I’m willing to believe that it’s not quite as much of a documentary as the directors claim it is. However, whether it’s completely unstaged or not, the story is unnervingly credible and if it’s fiction, it’s excellently-plotted fiction. Everyone is just a little screwed up. Angela clearly has her issues but Yaniv isn’t an innocent either. He’s finding himself during the time that the film was being shot and he strings people along rather cruelly in parts. Ariel has little qualms about plunging his brother into an emotionally-fraught situation just so that he has a good movie. Everyone has an agenda, and it’s all pretty murky, just as life tends to be.

Near the end of the film, Angela’s husband Vince says that at one time, tanks of cod that were being exported to faraway places like China would have catfish in them. Without the catfish, the cod stayed immobile in the tanks and the flesh turned to mush. With the catfish, the cod kept moving in the tanks and stayed agile. Vince says there are people in the world who are catfish. They keep the people around them on their toes. You can decide whether Angela is the catfish or Yaniv, or Ariel and Henry.

Incidentally, the fake me still exists on Facebook. I’ve notified Facebook repeatedly, saying that I’m the real me. However, the account is yet to be removed. Just today, I got an email from a cousin who wrote me an email to tell me how glad he was that I’ve joined Facebook. There are now at least 2 real family members of mine who are among the fake me’s friends. I’m on my toes.

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9 thoughts on “Fishy Business

  1. I’ve been facebooks bitch for a while now.

    On the plus side I think my favorite people on facebook are the ones I’ve never met in real life and probably will never meet in real life. They aren’t even friends of friends, they are entirely random, but I’d recommend it just for that.

  2. for someone not on facebook you’re strangely obsessed with it, no? i feel like people having shady long distance relationships remotely for a million years now. facebook is just the latest entrant in a long line of communication conduits. you’re still fetishizing it by not being on it. it’s as nondescript and inconsequential as the telephone or the hapless pager from the 90s. i have the feeling that this era will be so horrendously dated ten years from now, culturally speaking. facebook, ipad, glee, vampire weekend. yuck, what a horribly insipid time to be alive.

    and re facebook, i am just giving up on people who want to discuss the ‘phenomenon’ or the need for definitive documentation. we may as well discuss why there have been no advances in how we brush our teeth, or take a crap. the powers that be at time mag saw it fit to bestow zuckerberg with putz of the year. srsly, i am giving up. still no breakthru in cancer, aids, safe drinking water, feeding the hungry or sheltering the homeless. and the less we speak of planetary ills the better.

  3. Saptarshi, social networking has changed the way people communicate with each other in a major way and will probably continue to do so in far more radical ways in the future. So to dismiss it as nondescript and inconsequential is naive. Calling the telephone inconsequential is even more naive.
    Secondly, there have been many advances in how we brush our teeth. Just look at the range of toothbrushes available – power brushes, brushes with hard bristles, brushes with soft bristles, angular brushes, etc.
    And finally – Vampire Weekend is overrated, I agree.

  4. well prettynous, I try to not fetishize technology. I am not a fan of modernity, and the supposed efficiencies it purportedly brings to our lives. I think it brings about greater cleavages in society and has a peculiarly darwinist bent as it creates more have nots and raises the barriers to participation. Far from normalizing it among the unwashed masses (this is deliberate framing btw) it creates a horrible atmosphere of craving for something that was completely unnecessary to begin with. It goes without saying i’m a also a big fan of keeping it local. Is it really that naif to think that telephone was incosequential? Think about that for a minit. The problem that it solved was one of modernity’s own creation. You need shoes to walk because roads were invented (cf. time for a tiger, anthony burgess). You need a phone to communicate with friends who no longer live on the same block as you do because they were driven away by globalization’s metabolic rift. Is this crazy talk? hm. And to keep things on the lighter side, did we really need a Talking Heads revival in the 2000s (hint hint)?

    Did you know how many pneumonia related deaths occur every year? Even in the west (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/15/arts/music/15keenan.html)??? Look it up sometime. This is 2011. It is the fucking future. And it’s really, really shitty. Technology has not stepped up to the plate and delivered like the 1950s said it would. Ergo, i’m giving up on people who’re fascinated by the shiny doohickeys technology brings into our lives with unfailing regularity that don’t really do a damn thing.

  5. I go away for 10 days and that’s when all of you show up to comment? I’d feel bad if it wasn’t for the fact that I have absolutely nothing of any consequence to add to it.

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