“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.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.