Thursday, September 23, 2010

To honor a filmmaker's wishes

Much has been made about how you're supposed to know as little as possible about Catfish before going in. In fact, the very poster says "Don't let anyone tell you what it is." That could refer either to the movie or the meaning of the title, I guess.

So I'm going to write a post about Catfish while honoring those wishes. However, if you don't trust my ability to successfully do that, you may choose to save this post until after you've seen the movie. This is not an official spoilers warning, because I don't plan to include spoilers. However, I probably will tell you something non-substantive about the movie that could almost constitute a spoiler depending on your definition of what you shouldn't know, relative to what you've been told you shouldn't know -- which is itself something I plan to talk about.

And I also plan to talk about a second movie, Crazy Love, in which I will include some spoilers, because the synopses of the film are happy enough to include those spoilers for you. I consider that sort of a disservice to the movie, but it's in the public record, so I'll go against my better judgment and reveal this particular information as part of the topic I'm exploring today.

Okay. Have we cleared out everyone who doesn't want to be here?

First let me tell you that you shouldn't expect aliens to appear in Catfish. There's such a campaign of secrecy going on about this movie, and so much discussion of the supposed twist it contains, that you really are expecting something out of M. Night Shyamalan's worst rough drafts to enter into this movie. But I use the word "supposed" in the previous paragraph for a reason. I think it's highly debatable that what happens in this movie is as much of a surprise as Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost think it is.

And in that sentence I've revealed a spoiler of sorts, which is, that the "twist" is not really as much of a twist as you think it's supposed to be. If you look at it in a certain way, the fact that you won't be so surprised is itself sort of a surprise -- isn't it? If you're expecting to be surprised, you watch the movie looking for surprises. If someone has told you that the "surprises" aren't really surprises, then you watch it with less anticipation -- and perhaps are less excited to see it to begin with.

So why, you ask, is there so much hype about this movie containing a twist, when the places it goes -- although somewhat unexpected -- are in many ways a logical offshoot of what you do know about the movie going in?

Specifically, because the fact that it has a twist is key to its marketing campaign. I'll admit to you that I probably would not have seen Catfish on opening weekend if I were not so concerned about having the twist ruined for me before I had a chance to see it. Creating this kind of buzz, this kind of urgency about a film, is undeniably helpful at the box office. Hey, they got $12.50 from each my wife and me on Sunday afternoon, and we're supposed to be savvy cinephiles who can see through marketing gimmicks.

Before I go much further, I don't want to give you the impression that Catfish is not a good movie. I actually like it very much. I just don't think the places it goes are as earth-shattering as the filmmakers think they are. However, I understand completely why they would want to market the film this way, especially since the film is a documentary. Documentaries obviously need all the help they can get if they want to make money, and if they want to bring 15 minutes of fame to the filmmakers, which could lengthen outward to a full career in the business if they're lucky.

But if any film deserved to be shrouded in secrecy, I think it was Crazy Love, the 2007 documentary by another duo of documentarians, Dan Klores and the actor Fisher Stevens (who once dated Michelle Pfeiffer, but that's another type of crazy love, with Pfeiffer being the crazy one). Crazy Love is about Burt Pugach and Linda Riss, a pair of New Yorkers who met in the 1950s, dated, and then went through a number of stages of stalking, obsession, and other acts that I wouldn't want to know about going in if I were a viewer.

But here's what a lot of viewers did know going in. I am excerpting this, word for word, from a very prominent synopsis of the film that I've seen reprinted multiple times, so you don't hold me responsible for revealing the information myself:

"Pugach desperately tried to convince Riss to give him a second chance and began stalking her, but when that failed and he learned she had decided to wed someone else, he told her, 'If I can't have you, no one else will have you, and when I get through with you, no one else will want you.' Pugach's statement was no idle threat -- a thug hired by Pugach threw lye into Riss' face in order to scar her for life, and ended up blinding her in one eye. The crime earned Pugach a 15-to-30-year prison sentence, but less than a year after he was released on parole, a peculiar thing happened -- Linda Riss and Burt Pugach got married."

Ugh. Don't say I didn't warn you.

I much prefer the Netflix synopsis, but wait for the "but":

"This documentary from director Dan Klores chronicles the disturbing true story of an obsessive relationship gone awry in 1950s New York between Burt Pugach, a married lawyer, and his twentysomething mistress, Linda Riss. In a shocking reversal of the traditional 'woman scorned' formula, it was Pugach who came unglued when Riss broke up with him -- and the subsequent fallout made headlines across the country."

Unfortunately, when Netflix lists the cast for the movie, it lists them as Burt Pugach and Linda Pugach. Anyone knowing that coming in would know that these two eventually married, despite a film's worth of mounting evidence to the contrary. Fortunately for me, I didn't specifically notice the names and couldn't quite remember whether they eventually married or not, so watching the film was full of the bizarre discoveries that Klores and Stevens (who is actually listed as a co-director, not a director) intended their viewers to make.

Why am I so sure that they'd have liked the secrets to be revealed during the course of their movie, and not during the synopses? Well, precisely because they reveal their legitimate surprises only gradually throughout the narrative. Some docos like to tell you up front everything that happened, then fill in the details. Not here. Crazy Love is structured as a true narrative story, its surprises left secret until the moment of maximum impact. In fact, they go so far as to interview Burt and Linda separately until the moment in the film that it's revealed that they ended up marrying. Then they start to interview them together. This keeps the viewer in constant suspense about the current status of their relationship until the exact moment that Klores and Stevens want to reveal it.

But there was no additional push in the advertising campaign to make sure that Crazy Love was shrouded in secrecy. Which is why irresponsible synopsis writers didn't seem to care about revealing the whole plot -- and I'm including in that the guy who synopsized it for the website I write for. It was probably somewhat futile, then, that in my review of the film, which I just wrote last week, I not only kept those secrets for Klores and Stevens, but I discussed the importance of keeping the secrets to the experience of watching the movie. And just hoped that my readers would read the review but not the synopsis.

Of course, comparing Crazy Love and Catfish in these respects is sort of comparing apples to oranges. Truth is, the exploits of Burt and Linda were all over the tabloids, so the synopses were only repeating what was already easy to discover on your own, numerous places in the historical record. Whereas the people in Catfish are not known outside the movie, at least not yet.

And to be fair, even if Crazy Love had been accompanied by advertising hype about its various "twists," it's still likely that far more people would have seen Catfish than Crazy Love. Catfish is set in the world of our modern digital age, using media and methods of communication that most of us utilize on a daily basis. Crazy Love, on the other hand, deals with with octogenarians whose most interesting stories occurred decades before anyone even had a personal computer. And though I'd have to think about it for a second, Catfish may be the more interesting movie overall, as well.

But it doesn't contain as many surprises as Crazy Love, assuming you're younger than 50 and didn't live through the craziness of Burt and Linda as carried out in the New York tabloids.

And if me saying that about Catfish has spoiled the potential experience of seeing the movie for you, well, don't say I didn't (unofficially) warn you.


Daddy Geek Boy said...

I think you did a good job protecting Catfish.

I'm a bit worried with all of the emphasis being on a twist ending taking away from the experience. It's a gripping movie and it's best if you know as little about it as possible going in.

Daddy Geek Boy said...

Also...the filmmakers have very little, if any, say over the marketing campaign for their movies. So the whole "don't let anyone tell you what it is" conceit comes from Rogue pictures and not the filmmakers.

Vancetastic said...

Very true with regards to the filmmakers vs. Rogue. I think I phrased it that way as a contrast with the Crazy Love directors, whose structure clearly did betray an intention to release information strategically throughout the movie. The same is the case to some extent in Catfish, but I would say there's less visible intention by the filmmakers about doing it that way. And it's clear Rogue's marketing department took it and ran with it.

Mike Lippert said...

I didn't read the whole post because I took your warning at the beginning to heart so I guess I have nothing meanful to contribute other than to say that I really liked Crazy Love and your comparison now makes me want to see Catfish even more.

Vancetastic said...

And Mike, I guess that also means you won't know whether my comparison is related to content, form, marketing, or something else.

Daddy Geek Boy said...

Vance...have you seen the extended trailer for Catfish? Makes it look like Blair Witch or something.