The garden and the wilderness

Catfish’s tagline is “don’t let anyone tell you what it is .” Along those lines, Eric Eisenberg of warned, “Sitting down in the theater, you’re truly better off knowing as little about it as possible .” Out of respect for Mr. Eisenberg and the tagline-writer(s), I have done my best to remain vague in the following analysis, but it’s difficult to discuss Catfish without revealing parts of the plot. Normally, one worries only about divulging a film’s ending, but Catfish’s ending starts about 30 minutes in. For these reasons, those who insist on seeing the film in a state of perfect ignorance should proceed with caution.

The teacher of my first-year English course gave our course a subtitle: “The Garden and the Wilderness” — the civilized and the barbarous. It’s a dichotomy that can be found in or mapped onto virtually any story, but few as neatly as Catfish. While it’s hard to imagine that they did it intentionally, the Schulman brothers have created a tribute to “the city,” New York City in particular. Catfish inverts the traditional casting of the small town home as garden, the city corrupted, a dangerous jungle.

The film labels itself a documentary or a “reality thriller,” following Yaniv Schulman, usually called “Nev.” He is New York City on a postcard: cosmopolitan, creative and handsome. Much of the film takes place in the studio that he shares with his brother Ariel (“Rel”) — a mildly-eccentric Sam Rockwell lookalike — and Henry Joost. It is Joost and Ariel Schulman who conceived and direct Catfish.

Nev is a photographer who appears to specialize in dance events. The little we see of his life before he meets Megan Faccio suggests that he is reasonably happy with his urbane life. On Facebook, Nev meets and befriends Faccio, who lives in rural Michigan with her family. She and Nev begin something of a relationship over the Internet, which inspires Nev, Ariel and Joost to visit her and her family in Michigan.

It is only after the gang leaves the city that its effect on them and on the mood of the film becomes apparent. Ariel becomes neurotic in the country. He’s unreasonably suspicious of everything that happens and it’s hard not to share his trepidation, however irrational it is. Though there are few shots of empty streets or stretches of silence, the emptiness of small town Michigan is palpable. Many of the scenes there take place at night and the casual cinematography exacerbates problems with light, leaving much of the frame to the imagination.

The country, as the brothers and Joost experience it, is also full of suffering. Serious illness and misery plague several of the few people they encounter.

Of course, much of the tension in the country scenes is the result of the filmmakers’ attempt to create suspense, which is partly successful. Indeed, this may be the motivation for Ariel’s uneasiness — much of his and the others’ behaviour is self-conscious if not scripted, but somehow this adds to the realism.

The filmmakers are ill at ease in the country, but the residents are hardly more comfortable. Their attitude toward small town living seems to be one of resignation rather than contentment or even complacency. The character of Angela especially seems like an exile from a more enlightened world, one which she imagines Nev inhabits.

Catfish is not a “social networking movie”; it is a lot of things. It’s garden and wilderness, but it’s also love and loyalty and duty and ambition and rationality and insanity and all of the other clichés which define our lives. And, it’s just real enough to be poignant instead of preachy.