Review of Catfish (2010)

Moving picture, 87 minutes

Seen in 2022.

A young photographer in New York gets new friends on Facebook. Their lives in Michigan seem curiously exciting.

Before seing this film, I thought that “catfishing” in the sense of presenting a false front on the Internet came from noodling, which is one way to literally fish for catfish. In that putative metaphor, the catfish itself is a dumb victim, whereas in a simile used in this film, the catfish is a predator that keeps other fish on their metaphorical toes. The latter concept comes from 1913 fiction, not a real practice in the fishing industry, though one person in the documentary reports it as true. It is a layered irony that even my understanding of the word had these false bottoms and rippling distortions.

A similar sense of unreality pervades the presentation of the film. It is improbable that Nev Schulman’s friends would do so much filming, even of him googling a song title, until they become suspicious of the story. This makes me suspicious of the documentary telling the story, which adds another false bottom. In that respect, the film beautifully foreshadows the reality-averse hell that Facebook, Instagram etc. would become over the course of the Obama presidency, eventually landing in deepfakes, QAnon and the mass production of influencers as false as Catfish’s Megan. It is a good document of its transitional time and of two individual human destinies, but of course, the psychological basis of the phenomenon is older. The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) takes on many roles over the course of the titular novel, and these roles are mutually acquainted, so that they create a self-reinforcing web of exciting fiction like the documentary’s catfish.

moving picture non-fiction