Facebook fact, Facebook fiction

Despite its much-discussed dark side, Catfish is a profoundly positive film.

Last year's runaway cinematic success, The Social Network, is routinely described as "the film about Facebook" -- but anyone who has seen Catfish, a documentary by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, will realise that this low-budget reality thriller captures the everyday reality of the site in a way that was not possible for a film as busy as Sorkin's.

As A O Scott of the New York Times puts it:

The Social Network is about origins, while Catfish, at once narrower and more universal in implication, is about consequences. Mr Zuckerberg may be the genius who invented Facebook and cashed in on its success but many of the rest of us live, at least some of the time, in the world he made and, on the evidence of Catfish, it can be a pretty creepy place.

Some critics believe the term "creepy" doesn't do justice to the film world of Catfish. According to the Economist: "The film has been called 'creepy' -- a description at once appropriate and insufficient. Creepiness is a skin-deep sensation, whereas the twists and turns of Catfish ultimately create a portrait of loneliness and grief."

Critics have contorted themselves to avoid revealing those twists, while at the same time asking if such a multi-layered tale could possibly be captured purely through opportunistic filming. And, if not, is Angela Wesselman -- who is at the centre of the film's twists and turns -- a victim of artistically motivated cruelty?

Philip French in the Observer has this to say: "Much of the apparent authenticity of Catfish derives from the grainy, rough-and-ready quality of its filming. This is a developing story captured on the wing by larky, creative explorers with cameras in hand. If it is real, are the makers exploiting their unwitting collaborators?"

For as long as the film-makers maintain their creation is 100 per cent true, there is no way of knowing where on the spectrum of fact and fiction Catfish lies, although this will not prevent speculation. (Ryan Gilbey's Guardian article points readers in the direction of some compelling theories -- beware, spoilers.) But even if the most cynical suspicions are correct, Catfish still provides us with an up-to-the-minute piece of cultural commentary. It is a rolling collage that demonstrates the most popular forms of technology and the way they function in our daily lives. The star of Catfish is Nev Schulman, a 24-year-old New York photographer who shares an office with his brother, Ariel, and Henry Joost, both film-makers. The trio have laptops, iPhones, satnavs and mini-HD cameras. Tim Robey of the Telegraph finds the film-makers chance recording of Nev's internet romance to be a logical extension of their plugged-in lifestyle: "Nev, a subject who is knowing and naively good-natured by turns, is part of a generation that embraces constant surveillance: it seems quite plausible that the camera was such a constant presence in his life that it naturally captured everything."

Sceptics have questioned the likelihood of Nev, a good-looking, likeable guy, finding himself sucked into an online relationship. Jonathan Romney in the Independent scoffs: "I can't buy the idea . . . that someone like him would be gauchely susceptible to e-flirtation in the first place." But he misses an interesting point, which is that the social profile of the kind of person who uses the internet for romance has changed. Online relationships are no longer a last resort for nerds and recluses. They are now a logical option for time-poor young people who have grown up using the internet for everything from music to work and who find it natural and logical to use it to search for romance as well. Nev is the poster boy for the internet generation and, for a while, he seems to be on to something good.

Kaleem Aftab at the Independent sees things from this perspective: "The two have never met but as Nev begins to Photoshop pictures of himself with Megan to see how they'd look together as a couple, the love story takes on the air of a schoolboy with crush on a celebrity. He's giddy but can he really know her from this online communication? Perhaps. Perhaps he even knows her better than if they'd gone on a series of dates."

Even the twists that shalt not be named have not driven Nev to condemn Facebook and in a recent interview given he revealed that he is currently seeing a girl who contacted him through the site. "I am seeing a girl I met on Facebook. She Facebooked me out of nowhere and the first thing I said was: 'You look and sound great, but I'm not going to invest emotionally in this until we meet in person.'"

He is also still friends with Angela Wesselman. What remains when all the internet rumours melt away is the faith in people, technology and romance that Nev shows in the film.

BBC/ ITV Cradle Ltd/Matt Squire
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Is Danny Baker a “bona fide genius”? Not in his new show

The clichéd decade: Cradle to Grave and Danny and the Human Zoo reviewed.

I’m not qualified to rule on whether or not Danny Baker is, as the newspapers insist, a “bona fide genius”; I gave up listening to the ever more blokeish BBC Radio 5 Live a while ago, and I’m too young to remember the supposedly fantastic pieces he delivered to the NME back in the day (I read that they were even more amazing than those of Tony Parsons, which is saying something, isn’t it?). But I can tell you this: his new autobiographical comedy series, Cradle to Grave (Thursdays, BBC2, 9pm), displays no evidence at all of his talents, brilliant or otherwise. Anecdotes that just peter out. Jokes that fail to hit home. Misplaced nostalgia. Honestly, what’s the point? If you want 1974 – and quite a lot of us seem to, if the performance of Jeremy Corbyn is anything to judge by – you’d be better off treating yourself to a box set of the eternally satisfying Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?.

The series, co-written with Jeff Pope, is based on Baker’s memoir Going to Sea in a Sieve. It’s 1974, and Danny (Laurie Kynaston) is a randy teenager who still lives at home in good old Bermondsey with his ducking and diving docker dad, Fred, aka Spud (Peter Kay), his kindly mum, Bet (Lucy Speed), and his older sister, Sharon (Alice Sykes). A voice-over tells us, in effect, to forget all about the nasty old three-day week and to consider instead the warmth of lovely south-east London. How decent its people are, how eager to try out newfangled consumer goods such as the continental quilts Spud has pilfered and which now fill the hall of his tiny house like clouds. (Correct: he’s basically Del Boy, minus the Robin Reliant, the cocktail bar and, fatally, the workmanlike jokes.)

The denizens of Bermondsey are not, you understand, quite ready for the new world. In this part of London, bomb sites remain, merrily sprouting buddleia and pink willow herb; men are men and women are women. Spud is horrified to discover that his daughter’s new boyfriend wears – wait for it – white plimsolls, though not quite so horrified as Danny is to find a stranger’s ­penis flapping exuberantly against his cheek when he goes up west to see Hair (needless to say, our Danny was in search of naked girls, not sweaty blokes). If you find this kind of thing funny and (I can hardly bear to write the words) “heart-warming”, then you have seven weeks of bliss ahead. Who knows? Perhaps the characters will go on to debate the virtues of the various flavours of Old English Spangles. But I can’t believe that many people will be so easily pleased. Those who are old enough to remember the Seventies will know that the best of the decade’s own comedy was ten times more sophisticated than this, and those who aren’t – those who have never had anything other than a duvet on their bed, and can locate a naked female or even a flapping male member with just one tap of their mobile – will simply watch something altogether more grown-up on Netflix.

Kascion Franklin (centre) on BBC1. Photo: BBC/RED

Unfathomable BBC scheduling (is it having some kind of John Whittingdale-induced nervous breakdown?) treated us to two doses of 1974 as the summer limped to an end. The second loving spoonful came in the form of Danny and the Human Zoo (31 August, BBC1, 9pm), an almost-biopic drama in which Lenny Henry told the story of his painful start in comedy.

My TV critic colleagues have all been most respectful but, lovely as Kascion Franklin’s performance in the lead role was, I couldn’t altogether get with the show. Unlike Baker, Henry certainly wiped the Vaseline from the lens: his version of the Seventies was clear-eyed, particularly in the matter of racism. But his tendency as a writer is to tell rather than show, which becomes wearying, and the narrative he offered us – success on the New Faces talent show, followed by the self-loathing that came of joining the Black and White Minstrels – wasn’t exactly unfamiliar. An unscrupulous manager with bad hair; parents who think their son should get a “proper” job but are secretly oh-so-proud; Mud’s “Tiger Feet” and Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” on the soundtrack: such TV clichés really should be illegal by now.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses