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DID YOU READ

“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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Final Countdown

The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…