October 22nd, 2010 / 11:18 am

A Million Little Catfish Pieces, or, the Question of Truth

Damn near a month ago, Blake saw Catfish and posted about it here. Well, Catfish finally came to my quaint Canadian town, and I saw it last night. It was good. It was scary.

But what strikes me about this film is the obsession (re)viewers have with whether or not it is true. And sure, I’m no different. After I saw the documentary, I went home and immediately plugged into Google to find an answer.

What is our obsession with authenticity? Why do we “have to know” if something is real or not? Of course, not so long ago, there was a big “to do” about James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, if only because he called some real that was not real. Why does it matter though?

Nabokov said:

The art of writing is a very futile business if it does not imply first of all the art of seeing the world as the potentiality of fiction. The material of this world may be real enough (as far as reality goes) but does not exist at all as an accepted entirety: it is chaos, and to this chaos the author says “go!” allowing the world to flicker and to fuse. It is now recombined in its very atoms, not merely in its visible and superficial parts. The writer is the first man to map it and to name the natural objects it contains.

Nabokov also said:

Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth.

Such being the case, why do we obsess ourselves with whether or not something is true? Does it matter if Catfish is true or if A Million Little Pieces is true or if Swann’s Way is true? To me, Proust offers more truth than Catfish and A Million Little Pieces. But that’s me.

We are all voyeurs, and we just want make sure what we’re spying is not a ruse. We don’t want to be made the fool.

[Note: To me, the most fascinating thing about Catfish was whether or not the characters were being ironic. I mean: did he really think that girl’s music was good? Did he really think she was that hot? He seemed like a hip New York artist. I expected him to have better taste, or, at least, more nuanced taste. But again, that’s me.]

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  1. Traynor

      In the case of A Million Little Pieces, the representation of a false story as true is a way for the author to posture and pose as a “tough guy”. It is entertaining to expose that kind of intentional misrepresentation. As for Catfish, I think it matters only in as much as they are pretending that it’s true. Proust didn’t make public statements (that I’m aware of, anyway) as to the veracity of In Search of Lost Time, so nothing is at stake in terms of its relation to real-life.

      I saw Catfish, and wondered about the extent to which it’s true. This Movieline article on the subject is interesting: http://www.movieline.com/2010/01/does-sundance-sensation-catfish-have-a-truth-problem.php Basically, the author postulates that the filmmakers knew what they had on their hands very early on, then baited a “mentally unstable woman” to make an interesting movie. That theory certainly creates a new gray area in the truth vs. fiction discussion.

  2. Hank

      We “obsess” over the truth of something, because journalism isn’t art. Werner Herzog, who has made documentaries that are not entirely “truthful” once said the following two statements:

      “Cinema Verité confounds fact and truth, and thus plows only stones. And yet, facts sometimes have a strange and bizarre power that makes their inherent truth seem unbelievable.”

      “There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.”

      Knowing our subject allows us to judge the subject — is “Catfish” to be judged as journalism or art? Because of my knowledge of Herzog’s statements, when I watch his films, for example, I know not to take into account issues of fact, but to simply stand back in awe and wonder instead.

      “Herzog on the obscenity of the jungle”

  3. Lincoln Michel

      I don’t think people care about the truth value of fiction, or very rarely (like when a movie wildly misrepresents a historical event/figure). But in non-fiction or journalism the work is borrowing its authority from the fact that it is “true”. Most of the time there is a much lower bar for the artistry in those fields because readers/viewers are more concerned with learning something true or real.

      This is why A Million Little Pieces couldn’t be sold as a novel yet sold quickly as a memoir.

      However, as non-fiction/reality tv/documentaries become more and more fictional (David Shields diagnosed this trend exactly wrong) people seem to care less and less that these things aren’t true. Or at least their expectations of it being totally true have disappeared and they view the work more as simply fiction.

  4. Michael Filippone

      I think the controversy does not come from ‘is it true?’, but from ‘is it real?’.
      I think people want to know if what they witnessed was within the same realm that they exist – the extraordinary amongst the anywhere, anybody, everyday.

  5. lily hoang

      Hi Michael– You’re right that I conflated “true” and “real,” but in this one instance, I think the conflation is appropriate. Viewers/readers have this desperate desire to believe what they see/read has happened, that it is someone else’s experience. I will go back to my point about voyeurism.

      So let’s say for just one moment that you are a peeper, maybe watching a couple fight or have sex, whatever. Would it matter if they were “authentically” fighting or sexing (versus just acting)? To me, the pleasure derived in being a voyeur is the high of watching something unfold, the knowledge that you’re doing and watching something elicit. I don’t know. I may not be making much sense.

  6. Michael Filippone

      I know we feel similar about this, and I especially liked how in the post you asked the question ‘does it matter?’ [though I’m sure I would feel differently about viewing a fight on a stage vs. a fight in a bedroom.]

      I saw Catfish and I liked it. Upon leaving the theater, my friends and I were at odds about the realness, but I believed that it was real circumstances under knowing manipulation for the sake of an exciting/controversial film – so, in short, I was taking the ‘fake’ stance.

      I looked online and read/watched various things about the film and its makers, including the article Traynor linked in the 1st comment. I was still unsure. Then I saw the 20/20 special on the film. After that, I decided that the film was ‘real’.

      I haven’t read A Million Little Pieces, but when that controversy blew up, I was annoyed by the people who were offended by its inauthenticity. Surely there were things to be gotten from the story – true or not – whose value does not rely solely on the fact that the story really happened. Right? Or maybe I’m wrong.

      In a way I feel similarly about Catfish – I enjoyed it and my appreciation and enjoyment of it would not change if I found out that the whole thing was an elaborate set-up. Probably, I would be more impressed by their creativity, though I am sure that many people would turn on them as they did on James Frey. However, I appreciate that Frey wanted to write something better than what he knew was simply ordinary. Is it the writer’s obligation to write the best thing, even if at the expense of honesty? Maybe. I think so. If anything, shame on the publisher for thinking that I would only like/buy his book if I thought it was factual.

      But maybe by this point I am just rambling.

  7. Poopypants McGee

      I thought it was fake as hell.

  8. mjm

      Would you care if Robocop was real or fake?

  9. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      Robocop doesn’t know I faked my orgasm.

  10. Poopypants McGee

      Robocop is so fake. They can’t even make robots that play soccer very well. We need to seriously scale back our dreams of the future. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re still wearing pants in 2050.

  11. lily hoang

      Hi Michael: I don’t think Frey was trying for better. The narrative is that he tried to sell it as fiction and failed and it was suggested he sell it as a memoir and he did. Then, the shitstorm ensued. So be it.

      Catfish is different. If it was fake, it would be brazen. Ken mentioned in Blake’s post that the actors would have to be VERY good, too good in fact for me to believe it was acting. But some people are very good actors. Plus, come on: It would be way too controversial if it was fake, considering the use of the twins with disability. I feel like there would be a lot of pissed off people… Just saying. And here I am, getting caught in the melodrama of “realness.” I am guilty…

  12. lily hoang

      Poopypants: Is that how you imagine utopia? Wearing pants?