While Catfish presents as a convincingly real fake-documentary (currently awaiting its BIG reveal), I’d suggest that it is even more interesting to think about this already interesting work as a horror film. In Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Carol Clover carefully draws out the unsettling binaries that create the discomfort and unease that produce horror, and one of these is the city/country divide also then gendered male/female, respectively. This complex observation makes Catfish seem simple. The arty, Jewish city boys arrive late-night to an abandoned horse-farm in Michigan, and get pretty creeped out: all those dark pastures. At this moment, we are cued to think the movie might shift to the scary fakery of its creepy user-generated cousins, Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity, but things stay more benign and less bloody, or more techy and networky, for these lucky city slickers. Facebook, and social networking more generally, are the invention and would-be provenance of urban effete geeks (see Social Network), who must eventually open the network up to the whole world, and then—scary!—uneducated, unstylish, overweight plebes (and their grotesque offspring) can join the conversation (no longer restricted to Harvard), and then, even more horrifying, they can pass for their masters by expertly making use of this self-same technology, cell phones and fake friends, and you might even enjoy sexting with one! YUCK.

What makes Catfish so convincing as a “documentary” is our disbelief that the hideously red-state Angela Wesselman-Pierce could be played by an actress (her grossly retarded sons, and nearly retarded husband serve as ethical anchor to her “real”), while it is much more obvious to the art-film viewer’s eye when Banksy or Joaquin (in their glamorous, urban, sophistication) act the part. Here the slow-witted husband’s astute commentary about the wily, provocative catfish provides the generically pleasing twist on the city/country divide, where the bumpkins prove to be more sophisticated and worthy then their movie-making masters, imminently more qualified to produce alternative personalities on-line (Tara’s alters are the metaphor we all need to understand life on the net), given the all too self-evident bankruptcy of their mundane daily lives off-line.

It came as no surprise to me when Casey Affleck at long last spilled the beans: that his tawdry expose of Joaquin Phoenix’s bad-boy decent into star-boy-debauchery was, in fact, a nearly two-year performance piece, culminating in a premier at Venice, Joaquin’s triumphantly skinny return to the red carpet (and acting), and, of course, Affleck’s well-timed reveal. For, any student of fake documentary knows that without a reveal, a fake documentary is something much less sexy–merely a documentary. While it may initially seem fascinating to pruriently revel in the paunchy, drug-addled behind-the-scenes excesses of a once pretty superstar, we’ve seen this many times before. More compelling (especially for vain directors and actors) are the cinematic skills needed to pull off such a hoax: not visible unless revealed, lucky for you if that’s on the pages of The New York Times or the couch of Letterman. Furthermore, if good fake documentaries are actually about the serious ideas of identity, community, and truth (which I argue with co-editor Jesse Lerner in my edited anthology on the genre, F is for Phony), the audience needs to know it’s a fake to get the full weight of any serious faux film’s intended impact. As a producer myself of two of these funky hybrids (director Cheryl Dunye’s 1995 The Watermelon Woman and 2010 The Owls), I am the first to admit that their real art is in the reveal: when, where, and how often you expose (on screen and off) your hand as well as your sleight of hand (see Orson Welles’ F for Fake on this magical matter).

Thus, most fake documentaries litter their texts with such reveals, as does I’m Still Here. Well before Affleck’s requisite well-timed end-game off-screen admonition, I went to see the flick already in the know (simply from reading reviews) that its end credits readily expose the fake: Affleck’s dad is credited as playing Joaquin’s, Panama (where the moving father/son intro and conclusion is supposed to occur) is listed as shot in Hawaii. If you go to a fake documentary knowing its real status, pleasures of viewing do remain, but they gracefully morph from the low (shock value, spectacle, and prurience), to the high (formal, conceptual, and sometimes even political.) If you know a fake is a fake, you watch for the reveal (what are the filmmakers showing on purpose, and where do they make mistakes), and as importantly, for THE REAL. Because of course, while fake documentaries are largely scripted, staged, and performed, as is true for all of contemporary “reality” programming, there is also, always, a tiny bit or residue or trace of the actual person, place, or conversation (what semioticians call the indexical) also caught in every single faked frame.

Joaquin’s tummy (and his assistant’s penis) serves as just such a reveal/real. To make a fake documentary (like a fiction film), you have to shoot things out of sequence (also true for real documentaries, hate to muddle things here). In any one scene, Joaquin’s bloated belly (and his wayward beard, and gnarled hair) serve to verify that something real(ly) bad is happening to the real Joaquin, who truly does need to be trim, handsome, and well-groomed to be a successful star. The film reveals that his fat body is real, and we revel in the fact that Joaquin really needs a buff bod to get paid. But in many scenes, the size of his stomach (shot over and over again, yuck, to verify the “real” descent of this man) changes, revealing that this reveal of the real is itself a trick revealed. The many-times full-frontally viewed penis of Joaquin’s sorry, abused assistant performs a similar function (as Joaquin’s constant drug-use does not, because it really could be faked, although who will ever know?), in this case using another’s manipulated body part to verify all that might otherwise be too easily manipulated, while at the same time “proving” that Affleck and Phoenix are heartless, wealthy, ass-hole, bad-boys who will use those around them like objects to get things done and make their (high art) little film.

Finally, in this sense, watching “I’m Still Here” as a fake documentary that intentionally reveals certain bodily clues to verify that it is (not) real, begs this feminist viewer to consider what it symptomatically disappears, what it doesn’t show without knowing. When the same victimized assistant shits on Joaquin’s face as payback for the constant revealed revealing of his penis (and other similar acts of planned outrageous star-bullying, or are they?), we are denied any bodily proof (which would be pieces of poop) of this extreme act: it was clearly staged, and badly so–Joaquin cleans his face off-screen. However, while faked traces of homo-social bonding and bullying litter the text as reveals (the “real” Entourage), there is nary a shot to be seen showing how Affleck and Phoenix treat the real women in their world (save two gratuitous, highly-edited, and thus hardly revealing scenes respectively “exposing” Joaquin and his boys’ adventures with call girls in NYC and blond fan-babes in Vegas). Thankfully, Affleck’s wife and Joaquin’s sister, Summer, is never seen. But nor do we see any of the largely female crew who worked on the film, perhaps because several of them actually sued Affleck for sexual harassment while making the film (now settled: see Joaquin’s blog on this matter), including complaints of transvestite prostitutes on the actual set. As any student of documentary knows: it’s actually hard to catch on film evidence of real bad boy behavior, that is, in a sexist society that is all set to cover this up, and keep it under wraps, unseen, unrevealed, and finally, settled, leaving as evidence, instead, only the boys’ own carefully planned reveals (and all this might reveal).

District 9: Faking the Future

September 20, 2009

District 9—a scary, literally-allegorical (what is that!), sci-fi blood-fest—is also told, sort of, through the structure of a fake doc. It’s also terrific.

Because the faked reality is a speculative future (albeit based ever so closely on the reality of re-location in post-apartheid South Africa), rather than say an ever-so modified present (or even the speculative past of Inglorious Bastards, another matter entirely),  the meaning and function of its phony footage becomes counter-intuitively less ironic than the banal replicas I’ve been worrying about of late.

Simply put,  we know that the fake doc footage of aliens residing in prison-camps in Johannesburg can be nothing other than fake. Since there’s no doubt or even joke about any possibility of authenticity the uncertainty and uncaring that creates the pomo YouTube mush I’ve been fixated on is effectively blocked. Instead, the link to another real of apartheid and occupation (beyond South Africa and including Iraq and Israel) becomes a solid enough stake through Neill Blomkamp’s not-even-subtle replacing (through an allegory that trumps fakery) of one sort of alien for another.

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Faking The Funky

February 12, 2009

I’ve wanted to write on Be Kind Rewind for awhile (its retro-futurist dreamings of a soft-n-sweet hand-made people’s media revolution), and I did get to do so a little bit in the talk I’m completing on fake documentaries on YouTube, but merely as an aside. But then, I happened to watch Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and it has inspired me to pen a few remarks on my fascination and revulsion for this almost trend in recent Hollywood/”indie” fare: fakes of YouTube video in the name of a sacharine corporate-sponsored celebration of user-generated video.

Both films condescendingly imagine people-made video using an assanine language of over-the-top bad form (hyperbolically corny costumes, insanely clunky sets, bumpy frames, goofy gaffes), referring I suppose to a “YouTube aesthetic” that looks nothing like this, given that YouTubers do their best to make things look like corporate media. Then, they both get narrative mileage from a similarly shmaltzy vision of regular people liberated from their work-a-day realities through the communal labor of making video, or rather bad camcorder copies of already bad movies (let’s put on a show!) While I’m the first to share this revolutionary vision—raise sheep in the morning, make video in the afternoon—this Hollywood version sticks a bit in the craw, given that it’s nostalgically expressed within films that otherwise look like and are made within corporate media. What we get is an industry repeat (albeit from two of the industry’s artier voices) of YouTube’s very corporate vision of “democratic” media: one that softly sings of a flattened playing field that relies on what real people do and like and yet merely reifies the differences between good and bad, real and fake movies.