The Age of Inauthenticity

It is an indication of the lack of authenticity in all aspects of public life that we try desperately to seek out the genuine article, treating manifestations of it as the rare commodity that it is.  In an era in which our once-trusted institutions—government, corporations, and churches—have failed us spectacularly, our quest is understandable.  But often it’s an errant search filled with heartbreak and tears.

A small film with big ambitions captures our fraught times.  Catfish, ostensibly a documentary about the perils of social networking, is the handiwork of first-time filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman.  Their surprisingly gripping drama begins when Ariel’s brother, Nev, a young photographer living in New York City, is “friended” online by Abby Pierce, an eight-year-old from Michigan.  Abby’s unusual boldness is matched by her artistic precocity.  Something of a prodigy, she churns out brightly-colored canvasses, many of which she sends to her new and befuddled Facebook pal.

The proverbial plot thickens as Nev’s virtual friendship with Abby broadens to include her congenial mother and older sister, a strikingly beautiful and flirtatious blond with her own artistic aspirations.  Other members of Abby’s extended family are eventually pulled into the electronic orbit.  Meanwhile, as a flurry of paintings continue to arrive at his doorstep, Nev strikes up a long-distance relationship with Abby’s sister.  The two regularly chat on the phone and exchange racy emails.  It is a media-age thriller whose unexpected twists and turns are fittingly recorded with handheld camcorders cinéma vérité-style, making the audience virtual participants in the real-life caper.

The film’s climax comes when the Schulman brothers and Joost decide to visit Abby and her family in Michigan after wrapping up a photo shoot in Colorado.  They discover that not all that glitters on the web is gold.  Without disclosing too much, a carefully crafted facade gives way, revealing a much more interesting, if less glamorous, reality.  Crestfallen, Nev returns to New York, presumably wiser after his real journey to Michigan (an embodiment of heartland decency, supposedly) debunks a fantastical one conjured in cyberspace.

Many critics have lumped together Catfish and The Social Network, David Fincher’s masterful cinematic account of Mark Zuckerberg’s rise as one of Facebook’s founders.  It’s a misguided pairing.  The Social Network is a Citizen Kane-like morality tale of an ambitious entrepreneur gaining the world but losing his soul.  Catfish, which takes its name from a metaphor revealed at the film’s conclusion, is about something else altogether: the illusion of authenticity.  It is an illusion that exists even in the supposedly über-democratic world of social networking where you create your cyber-community and allegedly control your cyber-destiny.

Nev’s humbling experience reflects our own in a world lacking authenticity.  Our two-faced politicians promise “straight talk,” not prevaricating gobbledygook; the corporations whose products we buy and services we use assure us that they put “people ahead of profits;” and our houses of worship offer salvation, provided we ante up and not ask too many questions.  Yet they all fail to deliver—repeatedly.  It’s no wonder that surveys reveal public trust in major institutions of all varieties to be at a historic low.

The pantomime that will play out on Tuesday at the polls is yet another bogus contrivance.  The right trumpets its populist bona fides while shamelessly shilling for corporate interests, and the left promises “change” only to consistently fall short because it must also cater to the needs of its moneyed patrons.  Yet throughout paeans are made by all to that most holy of holies: democracy.

It is precisely such pervasive hypocrisy that makes Catfish an exemplar of the times—all the more so given that the documentary may well be significantly embellished, if not an outright fraud.  The sense of being hoodwinked grows as the film unfolds.  Questions mount: Why has “Abby” reached out to Nev, an otherwise anonymous photographer living far away?  Why is his Facebook friend sending him paintings (at great cost, one assumes)?  How is it that Nev’s online interlocutors are so computer savvy?  It does not add up.

Catfish’s creators insist on the film’s authenticity.  Their’s is an unverifiable claim, as is the allegation of the documentary’s falsity.  Nevertheless, one cannot help but think that the film has inadvertently accomplished something far greater than its creators ever intended.  Indeed, what could more perfectly capture the zeitgeist than a hoax about a hoax?

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