I’ve been staring at a blank page for a while now, thinking up an intro to this piece. My every thought on what facebook is really about appears to be pure, mind-numbing cliché. Chuck Palahniuk might’ve called it ‘a copy of a copy of a copy’. I guess in the digital age, a copy’s as good as the original. 1s and 0s don’t appear to lose their charm over time.
Watching Catfish (2010), which contains a myriad of images taken from facebook, I was startled by how familiar they all looked. Perhaps the same could be said of family photo albums and, come to think of it, of the human experience in general. Many find encouragement in the common elements that unite distant lives; the same people seem happiest when agreeing with each other. I’m being a bit of a grinch—that’s only my nature. Truth is, by the end of Catfish I envied the film’s protagonist because, through sheer luck and relentless naiveté, he’s ended up experiencing something quite original.
This is Nev Shulman. He lives in New York and photographs dancers. His housemates — brother Ariel and friend Henry Joost — are fond of filming him. One day a painting of one of Nev’s published photographs arrives in the mail. It’s the work of eight-year-old Abby Pierce, who begins a facebook friendship with Nev. Within weeks, Abby’s entire family have their friend requests confirmed and Nev develops a romantic interest in her half-sister Megan. Nine months and 1,500 messages later, Nev, Ariel and Henry begin to suspect something’s fishy. They drive to Michegan and turn up at Megan’s door to discover…a real person.
Apart from facebook, Catfish embraces mobile phone screens, satnav images, youtube videos, google maps/earth/steetview, and gmail chat. The music is by Mark Mothersbaugh, that most quirky of composers who usually scores Wes Anderson pictures with sweet, xylophonic motifs. Because the film’s effect depends on who Megan turns out to be, I won’t go into detail. Suffice to say that the filmmakers are no more than superficial young hipsters who were at the right place, at the right time, and owned the right equipment. ‘I can’t believe I was so gullible,’ admits Nev at one point. Aren’t we all in danger of eventually arriving at the same conclusion when it comes to putting our personal information online? The internet, after all, is written in ink.
I’m quoting The Social Network (2010), which tells the story of facebook through the legal cases that ensued after founder Mark Zuckerberg neglected the people who made his programming masterpiece possible. You know how truly brilliant people make it look easy? It’s the same with films. This one’s an absolute peach, and I don’t use that word lightly.
The screenplay by Aaron Sorkin is so sharp and clever and literate, my head was buzzing even on the second viewing. It turns coding, star-ups, and depositions into intensely exciting dramatic material. Much like David Fincher’s last directorial outing Zodiac (2007), the film keeps as close to the facts as cinematic fiction can. Zuckerberg begins by wanting to climb the college social structure and ends up creating the most successful digital platform for the world’s online interactions. This is a man who allegedly suffers from Asperger syndrome, as in he’s bad with people but good with systems.
Apart from the facebook connection, the question of ‘reality’ unites the two films. In my reading, I came across a 1974 essay by Colin MacCabe who argued that the articulation of theories regarding realism in film is hindered by ‘the lack of any really effective vocabulary with which to discuss the topic’. How perfect, I thought, that even within a single sentence about the nature of representing reality, a derivation of the word ‘real’ becomes necessary. On an anecdotal level, I recently heard the true story of a little girl who sees a starfish on the shore of a beach and says: ‘Look, mommy, it’s so realistic!’ This is the vocabulary of a generation who can’t remember a time before computers.
The Social Network is so gripping, no intelligent viewer could assume its fidelity to real events is absolute. And anyway, fact belongs in print. Films are effective at translating emotional truths. Their instructional value, which is fast-becoming the only topic of this blog, emerges best when they entertain us. Rather than being pounded on the head with a ‘message’, the best fiction lets its central ideas wash over our psyche while our senses are enthralled by the show. In the same way, the people who charm us have easier access to changing our minds, as do the ad banners on websites we enjoy visiting.
Catfish has come under fire because its story seems too contrived, its technique too accomplished and its protagonist too naïve to exist. There’s a scene where Nev, Ariel and Henry are driving up to Megan’s farmhouse at night. ‘This place gives me the creeps,’ says one of them. If you’ve ever watched a cheesy horror film, you would’ve heard that line. I never thought someone was capable of uttering it in real life, just as I never imagined someone could be ‘flabbergasted’ outside of literature, yet what can we possibly expect from young people obsessed with film and placed in a situation they’ve only ever seen on screen?
I think some viewers have been duped so many times, they develop a fear of embarrassment that clouds their judgement of veracity. One thing is to believe a dream real, quite another to question whether reality is a dream. Yet the more time we spend within the confines, or freedoms, of a CGI environment, the more difficult it gets to recognise the concrete textures of the real. The more we invest in ‘socialising’ through our digital identities, the more distant we become to sincere interactions on a human level. The only hunger we know is for the food we’ve tasted, and if real-life experiences are avoided and genuine interactions overlooked, we will not feel a void for their absence. Ultimately, Catfish and The Social Network understand the simple truth that, in the developed world of our time, the most veracious point-of-view shot involves a computer screen.