“Catfish” and “The Shop Around the Corner”: Opening the Envelope

We watched Catfish the other day.  It would make a good double feature with Banksy’s (fascinating) Exit Through the Gift Shop — both movies feel very of-the-moment in what they do with documentary form and what they say about 21st century mediated identity.  Catfish is hard to discuss without giving too much away.  It’s about Nev Schulman, a photographer who lives in NYC with his brother Ariel and friend Henry, and a long-distance relationship Nev develops via Facebook and email with, first, an 8 year-old girl and her mother, and then the girl’s 21 year old (or so) older sister (they all live in rural Michigan).  The young girl sees a photograph Nev had published in The New York Sun of a ballet dancer, and does a painting based on the photo which she mails to Nev.  She’s incredibly talented for such a young kid, and soon she’s sending Nev more paintings, and he’s in touch with her mother (initially as an artistic mentor for the girl), and then with her sexy older sister.  A flirtation develops, and then things start to get weird.

Apparently when it was first shown at Sundance, some accused the filmmakers (Nev and his buddies) of having faked the film — perhaps as a reaction to Exit through the Gift Shop, which is obviously faked in various ways.  I for one believe the Catfish boys, though, that it’s at least mostly legit and un-manipulated.

Coincidentally, we also watched (this one with the girls) the classic 1940 Ernst Lubitsch rom-com The Shop Around the Cornersuch a great movie.  The two films really have quite a bit in common in their portrayal of love and desire as mediated fantasy, routed through communications technologies — in this case, of course, the postal system and P.O. boxes (You’ve Got Mail is to some degree a remake, but let’s forget about that).  James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan work together in the shop, drive each other crazy, and maintain a postal/epistolary romance with what turns out to be one another.  In one great scene, Stewart goes to the cafe where his mystery love is waiting for him; he can’t bear to look, so asks his friend Ferencz (this all takes place in Budapest, btw) to peek in the window.

Ferencz: She has a little of the coloring of Klara.

Kralik (James Stewart): Klara? What, Miss Novak of the shop?

Ferencz: Now, Kralik, you must admit Klara’s a very good-looking girl.

Kralik: This is a fine time to talk about Miss Novak.

Ferencz: If you don’t like Miss Novak, I can tell you, you won’t like that girl.

Kralik: Why?

Ferencz: Because it is Miss Novak.

The imaginary object of desire now transforms into his disliked co-worker, metaphor into metonymy. Confronting the actual object of his desire is a bit like opening the holiday bonus envelope:

The boss hands you the envelope. You wonder how much is in it, and you don’t want to open it. As long as the envelope’s closed, you’re a millionaire. You keep postponing that moment and…you can’t postpone it forever.

Kralik, having peeked through the glass window of the cafe, has opened the envelope, and it takes him a while to reconcile what he sees in it with what he had imagined.  For Klara, for most of the rest of the movie, the envelope remains sealed.  There’s a running trope about “counterfeiting” and authenticity: “You don’t have to tell me that it’s imitation leather. I know that.”  (No one wants to be the dupe who mistakes the fake for the real.)  Or: “Are those real diamonds?” “They’re pretty near.”  This as Kralik puts the necklace on Klara, supposedly as a trial run for his actual girlfriend.  The idea of a “real” diamond suggests an escape from fantasy and mediation: fulfilled love as a transcendence of imitation and role-playing.  But of course the movie shows that desire is all of those things.  There is no “real” or authenticity that can rise above fantasy, just a “pretty near” matching up of desire with physical/bodily reality.

Reading books or newspapers offers another version of what Klara and Kralik had found in their epistolary relationships.  It’s Bovaryism, desire as mediated escapism:

Here’s another emblematic shot: Klara and Kralik are together in her bedroom. He’s come to visit her because she missed work, not physically sick so much as heartbroken (hard to keep the physical and the imaginative/psychic distinct).  He’s there with her — notice he is almost touching her — but is she in bed with him?  Yes and no: she’s there with his letter, which she reads to him, not understanding the circularity of this performance.  There’s a weird combination of all-saturating eroticism here along with chastity, in that she (at this point) has less than no interest in the physical Kralik.

In Catfish this all plays out through Facebook rather than mail, but with a comparable mix of misdirection, role-playing, and a sense that desire becomes revealed as a fantasy world of projection and invention.  There are matching shots: in Catfish, of the Facebook page as a new message pops up; in Lubitch’s film, of the actual P.O. box through which once or twice we actually glimpse Klara as she peers, looking for a new letter.  As befits a contemporary version of Lubitsch’s scenario, though, in Catfish the inventions manifest themselves less in words than in visual images (paintings, photographs, and especially Facebook images) and sounds (there are some interesting counterfeit singer-songwriter performances).

Some reviewers have found some condescension in the way the geography of Catfish plays out: the savvy but trusting professional-class boys from NYC head to the heart of rural, working-class Midwestern darkness where they find lies, invention, and a shamefully uncontrolled fantasy.  Nev moves, in a sense, from the media and the internet as we might like them to be today — facilitators of talents and emotional connections that can move swiftly across time and space, enabling new networks and expressions — to the media as they may in fact be: murky pools of potential deceit, role-playing, and solipsism.  (Although in the end, especially if you watch the DVD extra interview, the movie feels surprisingly sweet, I though.)

Catfish is all about what happens when Nev opens the envelope.