December 20, 2010
Successful Hollywood films have an overwhelmingly ballsy, brassy and over the top obsession with the hero’s journey. While many people point to the cheap and easy way Disney films use the same formulaic music scores and elements of “imagination” from one film to the next, less has been said to criticize this same pattern in Hollywood movies aimed at adults. Perhaps this is because we are pretty comfortable with this motif. When The Social Network was first released, many critics marveled at how the director was able to make a film that was ostensibly about computer programming interesting and fun. In reality, this was done using the same formula used for any successful Hollywood movie. We were given booze and boobs, and a bunch of geeky college students suddenly transform into warring tribes, both on campus and in the courtroom.
Who do these kinds of films appeal to? Critics oftentimes argue, “everyone”, which in and of itself is an interesting concept to think about. How do certain types of films get relegated to niche markets, while others are lauded as being “universally appealing”?I am interested less in evaluating the merits or flaws of The Social Network in particular (I felt it had both) than our collective refusal to acknowledge films that operate outside this particular formulaic strategy. One of the main reasons I think critics relished The Social Network and were more likely to dismiss Catfish as problematic stems precisely from the fact that Catfish resists and complicates this model.
Catfish is a documentary film which deals with some of the same themes that The Social Network does- how identity and the way in which we relate to one another has changed since the inception of social networking sites, and ways in which it has remained exactly the same. But while The Social Network follows a very traditional Hollywood model to get that point across, Catfish uses a more unusual framework. I’m not referring to the fact that Catfish is a documentary- there are plenty of documentaries that rely on the same heroic tropes, where we follow a protagonist through his highs and lows, or where the filmmaker himself is a stand-in for the hero, and we follow the filmmaker on his/her journey as they come to terms with their subject matter. Catfish allows instead for a portrayal of victimhood which is normally relegated to Lifetime or Oxygen Networks- the kind of wallow-y melodrama we tend to view as too feminine and weak-willed to be meaty, contemplative art.
Catfish plays with our conventional way of thinking about gender in a way which is not safe and which has left many critics calling the filmmakers out as being exploitative. This particular view of the film- that Nev Schulman, the New York based photographer who is the subject for most of the documentary, is the exploiter, and Angela Wesselman, the woman who manipulated Nev into believing in the several identities she constructed, is the victim- is partially shaped by how we perceive gender roles. If Nev was a female protagonist and Angela was a male one, my guess is that most people would assess that Nev was taken advantage of, led on by a lecherous old man, and that this film was a way of dealing with the trauma of learning that the person you thought you loved was part of a complicated lie. I stand by my belief that most viewers would interpret the film this way, even if it was revealed that the male Angela was mentally ill or unstable. It is precisely because Nev is male that many viewers don’t see this to be the case.Many viewers argue he is cocky or foolish, and that, therefore, he basically deserved what he got.
The most boggling aspect of Catfish is how it tears apart our idea of how genders act in romantic relationships and the way it illustrates female desire as complex and worthy of study. By the end of the film it becomes clear that Angela, who is middle-aged and unglamorous, is the artist and Nev is her subject. It’s clear that one of the primary motivations for her reaching out to Nev is sexual and Nev’s uncomfortable smiles throughout the scene in which he confronts her (which are lambasted by some critics as being insensitive) seemed to me to convey the flattered and embarrassed sense we get when we are being watched. Nev knows that as Angela draws his portrait she is objectifying him and that she desires him since a major aspect of this entire charade was to lure him into having a long distance sexual relationship with her.
Many critics hated Nev, were disgusted by his vulnerable, arty presence on camera, which they claimed was disingenuous.Craig D. Lindsey of The News Observer states, “…I should tell you that I don’t trust dudes who unironically wear red jockey shorts or have lower-back tattoos.” Debbie Schlussel agrees, “He’s a “smarter-than-thou” big city guy with a stupid tramp-stamp tattoo on his lower back, who’s been bested by a far more clever, overweight small-town woman with a very sad life.” On several IMDB message boards, viewers explain how Nev’s nudity and tramp stamp must be a wink to the audience that Nev is actually gay. Innocent, vulnerable women who walk around half naked in films are a dime a dozen. Men simply aren’t allowed to play that role, at least without having their authenticity or sexuality called into question.
Catfish isn’t a glossy or beautiful film. It doesn’t claim to represent an entire generation or cut through the more complicated and uncomfortable ramifications of the lives it captures. It pushes viewers outside the boundaries of safe archetypal images we are familiar with and the result is a film which actually challenges us to face an outcome which does not have a simple moral- that greed corrupts, that sexism is bad, that men are one way and women are another. By destabilizing motifs viewers normally take for granted,Catfish ends up being a much more subversive film than many viewers are prepared to deal with, a love story which has a woman acting as a primary agent, rather than an object, and a film where our male hero is presented as brave, but also, vulnerable, open to the world around him and also willing to make mistakes on the road to finding love. Nev plays the role of heroine, rather than hero, and it’s interesting why in 2010 we still find this role shift unsettling.