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“Catfish” and the Case for (Select) Spoilers

“Catfish” and the Case for (Select) Spoilers (photo)

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Spoilers for “Catfish” follow.

In Friday’s New York Times, Noam Cohen has an article about Wikipedia pages containing plot spoilers — for the Agatha Christie play “The Mousetrap,” which has been running in London (apparently unspoiled until the advent of the online encyclopedia) since 1952, and for “Catfish,” which opened last weekend. “The documentary ‘Catfish’ had its surprise ending revealed by Wikipedia before it even played in movie theaters — the brief plot summary and its spoiler were based on a screening at this year’s Sundance Film Festival” the article noted — something I read with particular interest, since the primary source of that entry happens to be a review I wrote during the festival.

When it comes to movie criticism, the escalating spoiler war has its roots in the divide between the idea that reviews are meant to serve as a consumer report to help people decide whether to buy a ticket to it or not, and the idea that they’re meant to engage a film’s cultural, artistic and entertainment value. The former is certainly winning — review aggregation sites have even made it unnecessary for someone looking for a quick evaluation to glance at anything more than a number rating for a sense of a new release — but the latter is all that’s ever mattered to me as a reader, and it’s better served by the ability, when necessary, to discuss a film as a whole (which is why, for instance, Sight & Sound‘s reviews start off with a synopsis that warns it will “give away the plot in full, including surprise twists”).

I’m not arguing for reckless divulging of major plot twists, and warnings should always be included before giving away significant narrative details, but to evaluate a film in its entirety sometimes requires dealing with that film in its entirety — and in that case, if someone’s concerned about spoiling their viewing experience, they should wait until after they’ve seen the film to read the piece. As for Wikipedia itself, it couldn’t be hurt by including a spoiler warning before a complete plot synopsis, but to expect the site to abide by what a studio or filmmaker would like released about a film rather than all the information that’s out there is unrealistic, as are expectations that anyone would curtail what they write in case it gets used by Wikipedia as a source for an entry.

09202010_catfish2.jpgRegardless, “Catfish” is an unusual case, a film that’s selling itself on the strength of its own twist: “Don’t let anyone tell you what it is,” warns the tagline. Though the Times piece refers to the documentary as having a “surprise ending,” that “surprise” actually includes the latter half of the film, about which audiences are meant to comply in shrouding in secrecy. But to suggest that “it’s hard to argue that there is an intellectual or academic reason for getting deeply into the secrets of a movie that the vast majority of the public has not had access to,” as producer Andrew Jarecki is quoted as saying in the piece, is to suggest that the serious questions that arise in the second half — about exploitation, documentary ethics and how real the allegedly nonfiction is — should be left off the table until the public presumably has had an opportunity to spend its money.

“Catfish” has become a movie in which its own marketing campaign attempts to prevent discussion of the things that are most interesting and relevant about it, and to dismiss its strange found-object resonance. As a surprise, what happens to Nev Schulman and directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman is fairly anticlimactic, particularly in the face of how it has been built up in the trailer — just a real-life variation on the cliché that behind the cute teenager flirting with you on chat is really an overweight, middle-aged dude in his parents’ basement. But as a document, it’s invaluable, a film that’s actually better than its makers’ intentions, one in which the end subject, Angela, shames any attempt (premeditated or not) to portray her as a freak show.

Interestingly enough, the same day they ran the piece on Wikipedia spoilers, the Times ran A.O. Scott’s review of “Catfish,” which stars its second half with this claim:

There is a big, not entirely unsurprising twist that lies like a booby trap in the middle of the film, and the choice is either to reveal what happens or forgo a discussion of the movie’s logic and meaning. The directors and the distributors would obviously prefer the second option, but the expectation of discretion is a trap. So consider yourself warned. I’ll try not to spell out too much, but neither am I willing to play along in a rigged game.

Everyone should see “Catfish” — not because of the twist, but because of how powerfully and weirdly it speaks to our time, to internet culture and the way it allows the controlled illusion of intimacy. It’s a film about storytelling, about how a lonely Midwestern housewife creates a stageful of invented characters with which to flatter, entice and woo a supposedly sophisticated New Yorker, and who, when that New Yorker’s friends show up at her house with cameras, ends up wresting control of the narrative, not to mention sympathy, from them simply by coming across as more human. And that’s something to see.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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GIFs via Giphy

Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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