Lost in the haze between fact and fiction

Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix's mock documentary, "I'm Still Here," now revealed to be an utter fake, is just the latest example of a tsunami of entertainment that is not at all what it seems.

In fact, when you watch movies or TV today, it's hard to decide whether what you're seeing is real, fake or somewhere in the dramatic netherworld in between.

TV is overrun with reality shows, which might be the least accurate genre moniker of all time, since virtually all such shows are shaped, scripted and full of story lines that are just as convoluted (and often just as preposterous) as any soap opera or telenovela.

At the multiplexes this weekend, "I'm Still Here" was joined by "Catfish," a fascinatingly ambiguous documentary by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. It's about a wide-eyed young New York photographer — actually one of the director's brothers — who engages in an online romance with a mysterious young woman who turns out to be entirely different from whom she appears to be.

If you spend time on YouTube, you can dip into a nonstop debate over the veracity of found objects there. Remember lonelygirl15, who was supposedly a real video blogger whose family had been involved with secret occult practices, prompting a storm of fan obsession and media fascination — until it was revealed that she was an actress, backed by CAA, performing scripted material for an online dramatic series?

We've been "Punk'd" so many times that nothing is taken at face value anymore.

Our level of disbelief has so thoroughly colored our interaction with art that when "Catfish" was first shown at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, it immediately inspired a wave of skeptical catcalls. In the lead was Movieline's Kyle Buchanan, who put up a post debunking the film, saying, "I think the filmmakers knew from the start what they had on their hands, and they baited a mentally unwell woman for almost a year until their film needed a climax."

Even before Affleck admitted that "I'm Still Here" was a hoax, a number of critics were noisily distancing themselves from the film, which purported to show Phoenix, having given up acting for a career as a rapper, doing drugs, hiring hookers, berating his assistants and generally acting like a zonked-out loon. It turned out that critics, having studied actors for a living, were quick to question Phoenix's dramatic motivation.

"Catfish" producer Andrew Jarecki, whose 2003 documentary, "Capturing the Friedmans," was nominated for an Oscar, insists that none of the events in "Catfish" was manufactured in any way. But he isn't surprised by the level of skepticism inspired by much of our new media, especially media involving online experiences.

"We're falling into a sketchier, more limited kind of communication than we've ever had before," he explains. "When a 25-year-old friends someone on Facebook, the word 'friend' means something very different, since you may well have friended someone that you've never even met."

He suspects that we've all become so adept at curating our own reality — putting forward the most positive versions of ourselves — that we question everyone else's purported reality. "People are quick to jump to conclusions about what is real and what isn't real because they're a little guilty, since they know that in their own lives, what they're putting up online isn't exactly true."

The key to our reactions seems to have a lot to do with whether we feel we're in on the joke. It was easy to laugh along with "Borat" because those of us in the audience weren't the rubes who were being scammed and made fun of by Sacha Baron Cohen, who repeatedly passed himself off not as an outrageous comic, but as someone making a documentary.

And at first we were fascinated by the saga of the Balloon Boy, when a Colorado couple claimed their son was aboard a helium balloon that was in the air for hours before landing near Denver International Airport. But fascination quickly turned to disgust when it was revealed that the boy had been hiding at home the entire time and, when questioned by Wolf Blitzer on "Larry King Live," he blurted out that the whole thing had been a stunt to spark interest in a reality TV show.

The parents actually served jail time for their role in the fraud. Filmmakers don't have to pay a debt to society for similar transgressions, though I suspect that Phoenix and Affleck will serve some limited sentences in movie jail for their inept attempt to delude moviegoers into believing that "I'm Still Here" was a genuine article. The film has been a spectacular dud at the box office, with a pathetic per-screen average of $953 per theater.

When it comes to entertainment, we in the media are sticklers for attributable facts. When a Hollywood biopic stretches the truth, we are the first to raise a ruckus. But in Hollywood, the truth is seen as being much more elastic, in part because film and TV writers create drama for a living, in part because people in showbiz tell so many white lies every day that the notion of a bigger truth often eludes them.

The lines between artifice and reality have become so hopelessly blurred that very few of us take offense at being manipulated. When it comes to entertainment, we've gotten into the habit of lying back and enjoying it.

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