Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Catfish or Talhotblond (here be a few spoilers)

Since this is my first review and its way longer than I meant it to be I thought I'd add a summary for those put off by woffle - I thought Catfish was shit in one way and Talhotblond in another way. If the films are both documentaries then Talhotblond is a much better documentary. Also, the following is about ethics. If you don't care about ethics don't read.

Right, to the blah.

About a week ago I watched Catfish, one of the many fascinated by the trailer and intrigued regarding precisely what happened when the filmmakers' reached Megan's house. When the movie finished I was fascinated, brain boggled, mesmerised enough to want to get straight on the net and research some of the things I found crazy odd, crazy interesting, mind warped. I was awestruck by the revelation about the family and the performance of the woman. What a brave, shockingly self aware delusionist she was. So insightful, so strong to accept what she had been doing and admit it, eloquently, perceptively, pushing aside the fact that a mind capable of doing what she had done is not typically a mind that resigns itself to capitulation, to erasing the fantasy and returning to reality, moving from one extreme perception to another just because some boys had arrived on her doorstop and asked her to let them document her fantasy being suddenly and jarringly punctured.  

Knowing that I was watching the film after it had been out a while, I assumed there would be an abundance of post film release information now available about the main players, such as how Angela's  art website was doing, and what the fallout of the media spotlight was. Other than my thoughts on Angela I was fascinated with the way the production of this documentary was presented, and many of the ethical issues therein. When I started the googling I was hoping to find that Angela was doing well, perhaps getting enough professional help that she hadn't received an unreasonable level of negative feedback, or had been protected from it enough to focus on returning to a healthy mind, and I was hoping to find out lots of qualitative details about the production to show that nothing unethical happened.

Why I hoped it was true, a proper documentary: Angela was fascinating and made me think and feel very profound things, turning a banal film relying on intrigue and superficiality into a tender study of psychological issues beyond someone's control, but owned by someone trying to be strong even in the face of that. Most of us find it hard to own up to how we are messed up with even the most innocuous things, but to do it when you are clearly facing up to being mentally unhealthy without prior agreement to step up and do this, and in an arena that may incur the judgement of millions of faceless haters is entering a new definition of confession. I found her fascinating, I invested a lot of energy into empathising and admiring her, and I had done so believing that this was all real, I didn't want that type of energy to be wasted on a fiction.

On the other hand, why I hope it was all bollocks: The academically inclined critic within kept thinking several things were not consistent with how typically they would play out in reality, if all relevent groups and bodies were taken into account. Firstly, it felt serendipitous that an innocent bit of documenting of something as currently commonplace as a relationship started on facebook could turn into such an unusual gem. It also seemed oddly convenient that the sort of personalities who would think that documenting a relationship started on facebook (to me not thinking that such a thing is not unique enough to stand out says unimaginative, short sighted, superficially minded people) would then suddenly show themselves at the end to actually be the sort of people who could handle the events of the end with insight, dignity, non judgemental tenderness and emotionally intelligent empathy. Next you have the presentation that all of the filming was not preplanned, that they really discovered the story as and when they were faced with it. If that was the case then everyone processed the revelations and adjusted super quick to facing the truth super fast. The filmmakers' processed what they learned and adapted to treating the family delicately pretty sharpish, Angela adapted to having to dump any hope of continuing her fantasy fast, and then to letting these people into her home and explaining her motivations, her flaws, her needs, as well as agreeing to have the filmmaker' reveal the privacy of her home, her family. According to the narrative there was no stages of denial or attempts at psychological self protection or preservation, she just adapted within days to exposing herself to having a spotlight placed on her, revealing her private life to not her close friends, not her neighbours or local health professionals but to anyone anywhere who was to watch the film in the future. Then you have the twins. As presented in the film, they were not mentally capable of agreeing personally to having their privacy invaded, but they have guardians in their father and step mother, so they would decide right? I'm personally against filming anyone who cannot for themselves sanction how they are presented; it can be murky in many scenarios, so in many cases I might think it's fine. Such as when parents agree on behalf of their children with full disclosure of what their children will be involved. Here however, it isn't made clear whether the father knew how they would ultimately be depicted, and the extent to which Angela could be said to have the right perception to make the best decision about showing the real twins is undefined. Given that showing the twins isn't even necessary, you could just talk about them and relate it to how it affects Angela and her daily life. These were the main things making me hope this was a very well designed fiction to capture peoples' attention but leave them pondering the socially and psychologically vulnerable, those with hardship in their lives that may need social support, but instead only get attention when they do something nutty. If it was real I had to wonder why the legal departments of the distributing companies had not highlighted that if any of the family suffered any genuine harm, by other people or by themselves given the liklihood that Angela's fragile mind might become more fragile under negative scrutiny, then the shit might hit the fan for the companies for instigating the media attention by being responsible for it's distribution. If in actuality it was fake I could believe that the reason that no-one worried about legal brown fans was because everyone in it is an actor, mentally stable and prepared for negative views but being secure, ready to take on the implications of performing this act. This applies also to the twins, who I could believe were not mentally incapable of making decisions for themselves at all but simply very capable of performing their parts exceedingly well. There were many other inconsistency details I wanted to find out but those were the main ones.

Find these details I did not. Inconsistancy continued on ta net. Some of these new inconsistancies led to the following:

I are not believe this ere film is real. The marketing campaign, and the campaign alone, was brilliant. Angela was amazing, in either scenario; if she is an actress I hope they don't hide her behind the guise of the character for long, she deserves to get a lot of work. The film though, is shit. 

At one point in my web trawl I saw some references to the filmmakers saying that they were not responsible for the marketing campaign and would not have inferred that the film was some sort of thriller or horror if they had been able to control it. Apparently they added as a reasoning that the reality was they are lowly filmmakers and cannot control what the behemoth hollywood companies decide to do (not verbatim). This part just made me think they had revealed too much of their hidden motivations with that comment, since it was said with no hint that exploring a smaller company in order to keep control over all aspects of the film was considered, sacrificing a big awareness of the film but a huge broad audience.  As if getting a big company to ensure a lot of attention was more important that maintaining integrity at any cost. But that is by the by right now, what I was actually leading into is that, if they had no control over the fantastic marketing, and they had initially intended to market the film actually presenting what kind of film it was to the public, and if they played no part in Angela's screentime, then they are poor filmmakers with no defining engenity of their own. 

If the film content is real then that would make these guys the luckiest bastards ever to be filmmakers. They document all sorts of boring shit, stuff so unexceptional as to highlight if anything their lack of imagination, they start stalking some girl with barely logical reasoning behind it, and then they find enough of a crazy reality behind the relationship to make the previous scene of trespassing on someone's land (someone who had every right to not want to physically see the person on her land that she flirts with online, that is, if Megan had been real) seem validated given that they were discovering what most people would label a nutter. If you sat through the movie knowing that the ending is not going to fill some sensationalist of adrenaline hole, if the viewer was not constantly enthralled by the web of intrigue playing within their own mind, exploring every possibility available to them, then the relationship scenes would be one thing. Boring. And worse, if this were real it would make the filmmakers the sort of small minded insensitive people who have no perspective that they are not the right people to assess whether they know enough about mental health to know if what they are filming could damage someone. Equally their decision to pad out the movie with so much focus on how Nev perceived the relationship and the arc of that perception shows ineptitude. The interesting part is Angela, and this new world that the filmmakers enter by entering her world. If they wanted to make a quality documentary then do just that, research everything you've discovered, shoot more of the end, what happened afterwards, the impact on the family, and the neighbourhood, the implications of this deceptions for everyone and summarise the supposedly innocent, casual way this relationship was started. A Capturing the Friedmans this is not.

If this film is half real and half fake, then the extent to which the filmmakers were clever and savvy in creating audience involvement through a sense of immediacy will depend upon which bits were fake and which were real.

If this is fake, then the filmmakers were pretty clever in knowing that making the audience think they were following a story of casual documentation that turned into web of reevaluated causality keeps them on tenterhooks. Allowing the viewer to see that they are very much like Nev. He didn't predict what would be the reality, and most viewers wouldn't either. We are involved with identifying with him and mirror his intrigue and engaged like him in trying to figure out how accurate his guess will be. By the time we reach the end we are attentive and extremely involved in what Angela is going to explain about herself.

Here is the main way the truthfulness of Talhotblond lets itself down. That and the fact that the production values are weak and the filmmakers have not been very imaginative in varying the visuals to keep the viewer interested. Unfortunate the disclosure straight away that this tragic story is about a death due to people misleading other people on the internet, specifying which character dies has the unfortunate effect of keeping the audience passive and disengaged for a large portion of the film. You become reengaged towards the end when a final reveal is made about Jessica. Like Catfish, the reveal reminds the viewer that many times you will discover that the truth can be miles away from how you interpret them if many of our traditional ways to proof that what we believe is correct are not in place.

Because intrigue plays such a big part in viewer involvement, and intrigue plays a larger role in Catfish, Catfish will receive more interest than Talhotblond. If the makers of Talhotblond had decided to design the narrative not as a fairly disclosed documentary but as a reconstruction, with immediacy from the perspective of Brian and his perspectives of both Tom and Jessi then Talhotblond would have the same attention as Catfish, giving that the powerfully involving narrative would draw the intrigued masses to it. However they chose to make a credible documentary with care and faithfullness and it is unfortunately too faithfully past tense to attract the broad audience Catfish does.

Returning to Catfish, and the idea that is is an elaborate fiction, if the filmmakers did this just in order to get the best release, the most public interest, just to get the most profit, then I'm disappointed. It shows a lack of insight into all the possibilities. I infer here to the possibility of doing a Snuff and claiming this whole thing was meant to hold a mirror up to society. One thing the Catfish release has highlighted is not about the film at all, but about the fans and haters online (you may include myself if you wish). Most people have argued about why it is real or why it is fake, to such an extent many seem to only care about whether they can proof that their perception and ability to interpret interpersonal relationships in many forms is so much better than most other peoples. The point should really be accepting that there are so many variables affecting peoples behaviour, so many motivations and circumstances that can change the meaning of a situation that each person should take as much care as possible to protect themselves reasonably, that if this happened to them if wasn't for lack of personal caution. Or, the point should be that fascination with exposing people to public ridicule and scrutiny has gone to far. When Snuff came out there was infamously months of people going to see the film just to be able to argue firsthand as to whether the film is real or fake, horribly amoral, illegal, horrifying and dangerous, or stupid, badly made and an insult intelligence. Months after this the filmmakers apparently came out and admitted it was fake, admitted no one died, the actress was hidden from the public to make it seem real. And then they added sanctimoniously that the behaviour of viewers highlighted their hypocricy, that if people were really horrified a snuff industry could exist they should not watch it because watching is funding, watching is fueling the belief by the 'snuff industry' that a paying audience exists is true, and being a horrified, offended audience doesn't change that fact.

The same can be said for Catfish. If the makers came out at some point and claimed that they were just trying to highlight the treatment of vulnerable people, the acceptance among viewership that judging others with professional assessment is always fine, of the validity that each person should be cautious regardless of how solid perception seems to be, and being careless with our individual safety is becoming epidemic for very irrational reasons born of out of its commonplace acceptability of the web, then that would be clever. But at the moment it looks like, if Catfish is fake it only designed as it is because the makers did not have enough confidence in it to believe it would engage the many even knowing it is fake; they obviously didn't think they had a Paranormal Activity on their hands.

Or it's real, and truth really is stranger than fiction.


  1. we actually watched these two in two weeks, back to back. but none of us actually wrote about it. it's too depressing for me to relive the two movies. though i don't think any of us would have focus on the ethics issue. don't know if you heard but the catfish guys are going to be doing paranormal activity 3. which, i think, adds to what you are saying here.

    great minds think alike.

  2. Great minds indeed :) And so few people watch Talhotblond as well, I wonder if it is too depressing for most people to consider.

    I know what you mean about it being depressing in general; I think that's why I directed it towards being angry, which as you can see from the post I found hard to contain. On top of the fundamental depressing nature I found the exploitative possibilities just too much not to comment on. I'm definitely way too intense about it though. If I hadn't written this rant straight after researching the filmmakers and all the controversy, if I'd cooled off a little bit first I probably would have tried to write something like this:http://kolson-kevinsblog.blogspot.com/2011/01/catfish.html#more


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