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can film do facebook?

kirsten krauth: catfish; the social network

Kirsten Krauth is an editor and writer specialising in film, writing and the arts. She is editor of the NSW Writers’ Centre magazine, Newswrite. Thanks to all her FB Friends who helped greatly with this article (it really is brilliant for research).

Catfish Catfish

In general, though, filmmakers have been slow to explore social media phenomena: the increasingly important daily impact on many lives of using websites like Facebook (FB) and Twitter. Perhaps it’s the text-based nature of these online worlds that makes it difficult to weave into dramatic narrative. But two recent films, Hollywood’s The Social Network and the low-budget doco Catfish, explore the history and ramifications of lives being created, lived and loved online.

Musicians have been quick to incorporate social media into their songs. YouTube is awash with clever ditties about FB loves and hates and the joys of Twitter. Australian singer/songwriter Kate Miller Heidke’s ballad “R U Fucking Kidding Me?” details a failed relationship with a nasty ex who now wants to be a Friend on FB. But contemporary fiction writers (at least those published in the mainstream) seem to have let the internet and its social ramifications bypass them completely. Literary critic Geordie Williamson argues that for most fiction writers the internet doesn’t even exist, despite the reality of a substantial subculture compulsively checking their email, iPhones, FB and Twitter accounts every couple of minutes (especially those in their teens and 20s):

“You only have to start reading with one eye for the internet to see how ignored it is by the profession that once explored the radical implications of Marx, Freud and Darwin’s thought, and which blasted totalitarianism, dramatised sexual revolution, thought the unthinkable about nuclear war...Faced with the web, though, fiction has retreated into silence. Old-school modernism toned down for middlebrow tastes (with a dash of post-colonial exotica, perhaps) seems the default mode for much self-described literature these days, that or a flight into the past, into the safety of the historical.” (“Only Connect,” The Australian, Sept 2, 2010).

James Andrews, looking at socially networked content engaged with film and television, argues that the whole system of ratings should be rethought in terms of the outcomes of the programs, that “the most popular shows are not those with the most viewers but...[those] that create the most conversations online... When I watch the show 24 I’m chatting about [it] on Twitter and FB with thousands of other fans...the question is, how do you produce media for a multi-minding, multi-screen audience?” (“Socially Networked Content: Why TV and Film Need Social Media,”, Sept 2, 2009).

Filmmakers have been quick to experiment using FB and Twitter to promote and distribute their films, setting up FB pages and encouraging users to ‘Like’ their films, post their own reviews online and re-tweet the latest news. But they have been slow to take up the possibilities in their film narratives. Karin Altmann, head of the script development company ScriptWorks, comments:

“I read a lot of scripts for various bodies and I am stunned at how few of them even make a gesture in the direction of using social media as a tool for their stories. It’s especially weird considering how young so many of these writers are. You’d think they’d be all over it...It’s actually quite hard to do—because of the ever-present question of what do you actually put on the screen? A whole lot of text and graphics? And as for the script—what do you put on the page? That’s what makes a film like Easy A so interesting. It focuses on the effect of social networking on the character and then on the way she uses it to solve her problem, rather than worrying about seeing the graphics” (Conversation via FB, Jan 27, 2011).

But the climate is changing. Along with Easy A, in the last months two very different films, The Social Network and Catfish, employ FB as a structural framework, helping to propel the narrative at great speed, while the Australian film Wasted on the Young, soon to be released, incorporates text-based cultures into the visual fabric of a teen film. The enormous critical and popular success of The Social Network, a film that looked bland on paper before it was released, reveals an audience hungry for explorations of these virtual worlds.

The Social Network The Social Network
Interestingly, the film is written by Aaron Sorkin (creator of The West Wing) who is on the record as saying that the social connections of FB don’t interest him; his only connections with others online are through email (Mark Harris, “Inventing Facebook,” New York Magazine, Sept 17, 2010). Perhaps that is why The Social Network has garnered such a huge following. Its narrative is peculiarly old-fashioned in many respects, centring on a protagonist, Mark Zuckerberg, who engages in spectacularly fast-paced witty dialogue (like something from a 1940s film), but is unable, ironically, to make emotional connections with others. The film successfully sets up the disconnect between his aim for the website (to help bring people together, or more accurately, boys get laid) and his inability to even acknowledge the feelings of his girlfriend. But it’s clear the Zuckerberg character has been embellished. Novelist Zadie Smith argues: “The real Zuckerberg is much more like his website...Controlled but dull, bright and clear but uniformly plain, non-ideological, affectless” (“Generation Why?”, The New York Review of Books, Nov 25, 2010). Not enough characterisation for a hit film, Sorkin rightly guessed.

Smith also observes that while, in his non-fiction form, Zuckerberg concentrates on the word “connect” with an almost missionary zeal, the reality of the connections people make on FB are less interesting, primarily superficial, so much so that the novelist ended her relationship with FB altogether, finding the experience of going cold-turkey from such an addiction difficult. MIT professor Sherry Turkle, in her new book Alone Together, argues that the uptake of digital technologies is making society less human: “Under the illusion of allowing us to communicate better, it is actually isolating us from real human interaction, in a cyber-reality that is a poor imitation of the real world” (Paul Harris, “Social Networking Under Fresh Attack As Tide of Cyber-Scepticism Sweeps US,” The Observer,, Jan 22, 2011).

Ben C Lucas, in his soon to be released film Wasted on the Young, which screened in competition at the 2010 Sydney Film Festival, nurtures this theme, exploring the (virtual) headspaces of rich high school students in Perth who survive in strangely alluring yet empty competing worlds where adults don’t exist. Lucas melds text-based digital cultures seamlessly into the visual style and narrative of the film: “...the ‘isolation through technology’ thing played a big part in Wasted but that’s only because it’s the way people talk...It’s a basic part of our day to day but the underlying principles of bullying, of abuse, of exploitation of the technology, are as old as civilisation...the tools change, maybe enhance it, but the way we treat each other remains. If we had ignored or excluded texting and instant messages from Wasted it would have felt less authentic, in my opinion. Graphically we tried to involve it in the environment of the film so that it would just feel like another form of dialogue—part of the world.” (Conversation via FB, Jan 24, 2011).

With so much fictionalisation of character happening online, through avatars, the audience response seems to be an anxiety about whether the characters, or the film itself, are real. Much of the debate around The Social Network in the US centred on the extent to which Mark Zuckerberg’s character had been made up for the purpose of the film. At the Q+A screening of Catfish I attended, much of the audience time was spent questioning the filmmakers as to whether or not the documentary was a cleverly disguised fiction. With the recent release of docos like Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop and Casey Affleck’s I’m Still Here, it’s getting increasingly (and wondrously) difficult to see where the borders of fiction and fact blur. And it’s not surprising, given the content of Catfish, that the audience is sceptical.

Catfish centres on a New York photographer, Yaniv Schulman (the film is co-directed by his brother Ariel), who meets an eight-year-old girl, Abby, on FB, becomes her Friend (attracted by her precocious ability to paint) and is gradually introduced to her family and friends (via FB), eventually falling for a spunky older sister, Megan, whom he gets to know over the course of eight months, through an exchange of text messages, status updates and jpegs. When various forms of communication start looking dodgy (Megan posts him songs she’s supposedly written that turn out to be just downloaded from YouTube), Yaniv decides to grab his satellite navigation system and head to Michigan to meet her, arriving unannounced.

What he finds reveals as much about the nature of FB, and the desire to connect, as the surprising naïveté of Yaniv. (THE MEDIA HAVE BEEN WARNED NOT TO REVEAL FROM HERE ON IN SO STOP READING NOW IF YOU HAVE TO.) The family he has got to know are, in essence, a construct. Abby and her mother Angela do exist but Mum has populated FB with an entire world of avatars—family members, friends, all with unique voices and stories, that she maintains late into the night after Abby has gone to sleep.

It’s a fictionalised narrative of her own, to entice Yaniv’s affections and escape her own difficult circumstances; she is the primary caregiver of two adult males with severe disabilities. FB allows her to ‘make herself up’ and manipulate the world around her so it makes sense, much like the filmmakers’ angle in screening the outcomes. It’s to Yaniv’s credit that, rather than confronting the woman and pushing his agenda of hurt and betrayal, he allows her longing and sadness to unfold. In a sense he has been fictionalising too, imagining Megan, creating a world around her that he wanted to exist, even Photoshopping her image into pictures of his own, creating a virtual romantic couple.

What’s most surprising, given the nature of the film’s central theme—just who can you trust in a screen-based digital world?—is the filmmakers’ apparent surprise at the audience challenges to the documentary’s veracity; in Catfish, everything is mirage. In The Social Network the reality of the enterprise—the cold, hard cash—is the focus. In the end, neither film is about realising your (romantic) dreams, but about how marketing hype and the conversations that follow can make you a star. And then punish you for it.

Wasted on the Young will be released March 3. The Social Network is set for release on Blu-ray and DVD on March 2, 2011. Catfish is screening currently.

Wasted on the Young, writer, director Ben C Lucas, producers Janelle Landers, Aidan O’Bryan, cinematographer Dan Freene, editor Leanne Cole. The Social Network, director David Fincher, screenplay Aaron Sorkin, based on a book by Ben Mezrich, producers Dana Brunetti, Ceán Chaffin, Michael De Luca, Scott Rudin, original music Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, editors Kirk Baxter, Angus Wall; Catfish, directors and cinematographers Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, featuring Yaniv Schulman.

Kirsten Krauth is an editor and writer specialising in film, writing and the arts. She is editor of the NSW Writers’ Centre magazine, Newswrite. Thanks to all her FB Friends who helped greatly with this article (it really is brilliant for research).

RealTime issue #101 Feb-March 2011 pg. 27

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