Fantasia 2018 Review: CAM Is A Frightening Meltdown of Identity and Ego
In the twentieth century, it used to be decades (more often never) for our technological fears, and their refracted social mores, to manifest themselves into some kind of actuality. Now it seems the cycle-time of what we can conceive of, our future dreams and nightmares, shall be available in the real world in less time than it takes to write, produce and release a feature film. Take a minute to process that.
Cam tells the story of Alice Ackerman (The Handmaid's Tale's Madeline Brewer, here, tough and vulnerable in equal measure), a young woman who plys a living in the gig economy by sex-fantasy and role playing on Free Girls Live. FGL.com is a web-cam internet platform that sells its female hosts as a not too hardcore, but not too chaste peep at intimacy for the endless lonely/bored/cheating/curious souls out there on the world wide web. There is equal measure of quirky fetish, banal sexiness, and innocent silliness across the gamut of channels of FGL, and Alice's channel, "Lola," embodies all of these things simultaneously. She is doing well in terms of income, and has been steadily rising in the ranks of the platform, with her eyes on the prize of being amongst the top 50 channels.
First and foremost a 'woke' horror story on the secret (hint: mundane) lives of sex workers, you do not have to burrow too deep into the film's subtext to grasp the peril of our current moment in the West. One that is ever more tenuously clutching to increasingly quaint American notions of a life of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Cyberstalking, along with the bullying and doxing and eventual revenge porn that follows, in our online spaces has emboldened, racists, and vile misogynist offshoots like Incel, at the same time as the algorithmic economies of the web have spawned pandering micro-celebrities out of Instagrammers and Youtubers via predictive analytics and feedback loops (Called 'echo chambers' with good reason).
Much like Uber, Taskrabbit and the like, this idea of an 'at your own convenience, be your own boss' type of employment is seductive to anyone between so- called ’real’ jobs (whatever that even means these days!) Those working within online platforms assume all the risk, while splitting the reward with a remote venture capital enabled company, generally founded by dude-bros lacking much in the way of life-experience. All the while the 'employee' is being subtly (and not accidentally) nudged to become addicted to the very notion that the 'gig' concept is any kind of sustainable living. As much as it is easy to make some quick money for a time, the hidden costs begin to manifest themselves. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of platform escalation, rule changes by way of move-quick-and-break-things evolution, and the race-to-the-bottom slavery these pay-to-play employment relationships have a way of descending into.
On her Lola channel, for Alice all of the above paragraph is evident. She has already evolved from hanging out semi-nude in cheerleader outfits and lingerie while talking cute with her stuffed animals, to acting out suicide slasher-theatre to get the attention of the punters. And those pink curtains that surround her digital cubicle progressed from their original kitschy-softcore Pretty in Pink context to a more sinister Neon Demon (but are not quite yet to the Black Lodge end-point.)
Her channel's visitors are happy to throw cash donations her way (virtual tokens, which arrive in the chat window with a Pavlovian ringtone) as a way of encouraging her as she slits her throat, or splatters herself in fake blood. Two men in particular, Tinker and Barney (Patch Darragh, desperately creepy and Michael Dempsy, entitled and sleazy) donate enough attention and dollars and even mailing her physical gifts, that they get private online chats with Lola and a hinted chance of a real life encounter.
Alice's life has been almost completely subsumed into her job. The petty dramas of several of her 'co-workers,' other cam-girls who often make guest-appearances and collaborations on each other's channels (lets break out the vibrators!) appear to be the bulk of her social life, with the remainder being trips home to the family.
While she has tries to maintain a separation of church and state -- her online life and her real life -- and has a set of working rules: Don't do in-person shows, only live-streams; Don't tell the customers you love them; Any orgasms should be real) to maintain her own sense of being in control. It is a difficult tight-rope, but she has been walking it effectively, rising in the FGL rankings and reaping enough financial success to have UberEats deliver sushi on demand (gig worker irony noted).
Alice gets along with hair stylist, working stiff, mom. Side note: It is always nice to see the great Melora Walters show up and do what she does, and she is exemplary here in a small, but pivotal role. She has a solid and casual relationship with her younger brother, who could be in the demographic that spends time in these chat rooms. Second side note: It is an equally pleasant surprise see Louder Than Bombs and 13 Reasons Why's Devin Druid in a tiny part, albeit he has precious little to do.
We see Alice in a shifty, elliptical fashion, inform her family that she has earned enough money to buy a house by working in as a ‘web entrepreneur.’ Sex work remains a scandalous and ostracizing career to many in 2018. That is the calm before the storm in Alice's story, just before she falls down the rabbit hole upon getting mysteriously locked out of her FGL account.
If you have ever earned a living via an online platform (disclosure: I have), you will very much appreciate (and empathize with) the horror that Isa Mazzei and director Daniel Goldhaber perfectly convey when Alice is ghosted by her own platform, glitch in the Matrix or not.
But the film goes further, much further, when that same glitchy something, be it software bot or supernatural entity, co-opts her identity, and begins streaming new shows with a doppelgänger version Lola. One that smoothly interacts with her regulars - convincingly enough to pass any Turing test - but also behaves in off-kilter ways that are increasingly extreme, and start to violate Alice/Lola's working rules. Cam threads the needle by effectively being both literal and metaphoric, in the same way IRL and online life coexists for all of us. After a time, both ooze and blur together with no conscious effort, just inertia.
Reacting to her predicament, Alice does what all of us would: call customer support. FGL's Customer Support is useless to her. 'Your account appears to be streaming fine, I will transfer you to the next multi-hour hold cue to escalate, your business is important to us, blah, blah. Have a nice day.' Failing that, there is Law enforcement right? Yea, they are so far behind the technological curve it is tragic and comic in the officer's clueless as to what the problem even is. When a cop offers, "What's the problem? Just stay off the internet", the bulk of Cam's audience will, surely, all cringe in unison. The film's horror unfolds with an effectively toxic (and sadly familiar) melange of fan entitlement, Gamer Gate ick, and the good old fashioned prostitute's dilemma.
Tinker and Barney, Lola's chief customers, both make real-life relationship/sex plays while the situation plays out. Alice's not so secret shame of being discovered by her family becomes reality - albeit there is a refreshingly modern spin on this that I believe audiences will appreciate the balance. With more than one modern glance toward Lewis Carroll, Alice is trapped into her own anti-Wonderland nothing-makes-sense nightmare, where the world is a Mad Hatter, and she is one of several chipped and discarded teapots. With everything getting feverish and meta, and Alice desperate to reclaim some kind of agency in both worlds, the filmmaking here mirrors its own dichotomy with style and aesthetic choices that are remarkable and confident for a debut feature.
A part of me is curious if writer (and former Cam-Girl herself) Isa Mazzei and director Daniel Goldhaber were aware, during the writing and production process of their film, of Deepfakes. This is the effects suite which now can convincingly superimpose the face of an unwilling person, often an A-list actress or fanboy-popculture favourite, onto hardcore pornography clips, but is working its way into revenge porn rapidly enough. It is to HD video what Adobe Photoshop was to photographic manipulation, 20 years ago. Nothing we see can be trusted, and this goes way, way beyond the old saw of simply ‘editing things out of context.’
By the time the Cam is playing film festivals, Montreal's Fantasia was in fact its World Premiere, the future of seamless identity appropriation is already upon us. It is even close to the point of being normalized with things like this, from comedian Jordan Peele in made in April of this year.
Consider Cam as not just a prescient example of astute horror filmmaking, but an important piece in the puzzle of an evolving set of ideas and visual grammar that needs to be grappled with in cinema or the next storytelling medium. Along with the 2013 ‘Synthesbian’ sci-fi, The Congress (which then required rotoscope animation because the technology was not there to do what Cam does on an indie budget), as well as this years most alarming documentary, People's Republic of Desire, on China's fascination and disproportionate monetization of chatroom micro-celebrities, and Timur Bekmambetov's investigative journalism desk-top thriller, Profile, there is a zeitgeist already trying to pin these dystopian nightmares to the floor and vivisect them onscreen for a woke, media savvy audience.