Reeler than Real

A new breed of "documentaries" blurs the boundary between verifiable fact and movie truth

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Magnolia Pictures

Joaquin Phoenix

"Do you want to be the subject of this documentary or not?" the filmmaker Ariel Schulman asks his photographer brother Nev (rhymes with Steve). "No," says Nev, "I do not." But of course he does, or there would be no Catfish, the tale of Nev's Internet friendship with 8-year-old Abby, a budding artist, and with her Michigan mother Angela and teenage half sister Megan. As warning shadows creep over the naive Nev's Facebook tryst and he ventures toward an encounter with the sirens of the Upper Peninsula, a question forms in the viewer's mind: Is this a documentary or not? Is Catfish real? Or just "real"?

Reality is "one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes," Vladimir Nabokov wrote in the afterword to Lolita (itself the supposed document of an adult male's inappropriate relationship with an underage girl). That dictum surely applies to the reality TV of the Survivor and Jerry Springer varieties. But taking a page from these shows, the nonfiction film has gotten a reality makeover.

You used to be able to trust that the scenes in a documentary really happened. But in Catfish — and in another hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Exit Through the Gift Shop, which since its April release has earned $3.3 million (in the nano-world of indie films, that's Avatar money), as well as in the Joaquin Phoenix docutravesty I'm Still Here — you have to wonder if you're being taken. That's part of the weirdness, the appeal and the sales pitch of the new fakeumentary. Crockumentary. Prankumentary. Or, after Nabokov, "documentary."

Gift Shop presents itself as the record of one Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman who videotapes L.A. graffiti artists in action. He manages to contact Banksy, the famed, mysterious English art prankster, and becomes his chronicler. The film, which purports to have been assembled by Banksy from Guetta's tapes, has much to say about the appropriation and exploitation of an artist's work. But who really made it, and how? That's Banksy's secret.

The perplexities about Catfish begin with Nev, a swarthy cutie (if the movie were remade in Hollywood, he'd be played by Jake Gyllenhaal) who during the filming has no liaison worth mentioning. Catfish suggests a reprise of the e-mail-romance comedy You've Got Mail, then flirts briefly with Texas Chainsaw Massacre elements and finally goes for a Wizard of Oz — type twist. Maybe it's real, maybe not. But even discounting that meta-matter, Catfish keeps you glued to its fable of the lure and peril of virtual intimacy and invested in the poignant psychology of one of its female characters. If the movie were to come out of its own closet, she might be the first person in a "documentary" to earn an Oscar nod for Best Actress.

Phoenix has been an Oscar finalist twice, for his roles as the Roman villain in Gladiator and Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. In the new warts-and-all (in fact, all-warts) portrait by his brother-in-law Casey Affleck, the actor impersonates "Joaquin Phoenix," a Method movie star who puts on so much weight he looks like a morose Zach Galifianakis, ingests mountains of cocaine, abuses his staff and makes two humiliating visits: one to hip-hop mogul Sean Combs, in a bid to jump-start his rap career, the other as an incoherent guest on David Letterman's talk show. On Sept. 22, Phoenix returned to Letterman, clean-shaven and straight-talking, to fess up to the ruse. That might have pricked the air out of I'm Still Here's balloon if it weren't such an illuminating, dead-on parody of Hollywood ego run amok. Even though it's fake, it's still squirmingly real.

Strictly speaking, nothing onscreen is real. Shot selection, filming and editing demand dozens of artistic decisions, all of which conspire to fictionalize content. The documentary pioneer Robert Flaherty recognized the genre's dramatic needs as far back as 1922, when, while filming Nanook of the North, he directed his Inuit star to re-enact events he had told Flaherty about.

But these three "documentaries" also have antecedents in classic faux docs. I'm Still Here borrows Sacha Baron Cohen's mix of fake character and real confrontation and pushes it up one bold notch. Catfish hints at The Blair Witch Project, with a different sort of strange force awaiting Nev. And Exit Through the Gift Shop is spiritual kin to the 1973 F for Fake, in which Orson Welles took a BBC doc of art forger Elmyr de Hory, recut it and added footage starring himself — a fuller-figured, on-camera Banksy. Welles knew that a viewer asks only one thing of any movie, real, fake or somewhere in between: keep me watching.