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.
Regardless, “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.