Friday, May 29, 2020

Live on Cam: How Isa Mazzei & Daniel Goldhaber's Film Displays Postmodern Feminism

(Every month, I choose a horror film to shine a spotlight on and dig into. For the month of May, I selected the Netflix digital thriller Cam.)

In the 1983 cult horror film Videodrome, director and writer David Cronenberg chose to introduce his film's female lead, Nicki, as an image through a camera in a way that presents a double meaning: She is presented as an image through Cronenberg's camera to Videodrome's spectators and as an image projected through the technology at the center of the film's plot to Max, the film's male lead. The purpose of the decision made here is to demonstrate that Nicki is not a person, but rather an avatar. Her image has been commodified in order to both seduce the protagonist into the technology's grasp and to lure Cronenberg's intended audience further into the film. This is driven home when you contemplate that Cronenberg cast Deborah Harry, a musician whose image is well known to the point where I can (rightfully) refer to her as an icon, to play Nicki. When you put all of this together, it's clear that Cronenberg used postmodern outlets to establish that Nicki's role in Videodrome revolves around using her, to borrow a term coined by film theorist Laura Mulvey, "to-be-looked-at-ness" to appeal to both the character Max and to Cronenberg's intended audience.

Actual legend Deborah Harry as Nicki in Videodrome (1983)

So, what does Videodrome have to do with the movie Cam? Well, cut to 2018: Netflix releases Cam, a horror film written by Isa Mazzei and directed by Daniel Goldhaber. Cam introduces its protagonist, Alice, the same way Videodrome introduced Nicki: As an image shown through a camera. Initially, Alice seems to be presented in the exact same fashion as Nicki: A commodity presented to be consumed by both male characters within the film and to an assumed male audience to hook them into watching the film. The choice by Mazzei and Goldhaber to make Alice a sex worker, specifically a camgirl, reinforces certain expectations that Alice could be a direct spiritual descendant of Nicki. That is, until Alice is seemingly harassed repeatedly by a "visitor" on her website's chatroom whom demands with cash that Alice harm herself with a knife. Which leads Alice to slit her own throat, seemingly killing herself...until it's revealed that the "suicide" was staged by Alice and one of her regular customers, Tinker, in order for her to make money and ascend in popularity on her website. With this twist, the same postmodernist method that Cronenberg used to establish Nicki's role in Videodrome as a passive commodity is used by Mazzei and Goldhaber to establish Alice as Cam's active protagonist. The choices that Mazzei and Goldhaber make throughout the entirety of Cam combine postmodernism with feminism to birth an effective horror film that follows in Videodrome's footsteps while building its own identity lined with new new flesh.

The amazing Madeline Brewer as Alice in Cam (2018)

One of the choices that Mazzei and Goldhaber made with Cam that allows the film to shape its own identity is its use of postmodern concepts throughout. One such concept is the idea dubbed by film theorist Fredric Jameson as the waning of affect. The waning of affect is, in a nutshell, the decline and erasure of an object's ability to present meaning, something that can be done both accidentally and purposefully. The waning of affect is present throughout Cam, including through the character of Lola. To begin with, Lola is literally an object created by from an algorithm from the website Alice does her work on and only appears human for two reasons: One, because Lola is modeled after the very human Alice and two, for the purposes of the website using this human image to titillate and seduce male spectators, very similarly to how the technology in Videodrome makes its avatar a human to entangle Max in its plans for him. Next, Lola, as an object, initiates the decline to the meaning of Alice's original work and online persona. Lola, existing purely as a passive commodity, lacks the humanity of the woman she is a reproduction of and, as a result, removes the meaning from Alice's work except for the active titillation of male spectators. The efforts of Alice to put depth into her online persona has been replaced by the shallowness that Lola is solely capable of offering.

In addition to the waning of affect, the postmodern ideal of radical difference is another that, like the waning of affect, can be found in Cam's content. Jameson, in his text Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, discusses that radical difference is when a "former work of art, in other words, has now turned out to be a text, whose reading proceeds by differentiation rather than by unification." This is definitely germane to Cam, as the plot of the film is dependent on the separation of Alice into two. Initially, the separation of Alice is symbolic as tries to separate her lives online and offline. This symbolic separation is best exemplified in Alice's reactions to Tinker online and offline: In a scene immediately following the opening sequence described above, Alice has a short video chat with Tinker in which we see her making sure to act bubbly and eager to please her customer. Even when she has to end their chat to talk with a different customer, Alice makes sure to maintain her performativity towards Tinker. A few scenes later, when Alice catches Tinker spying on her while she's shopping at a convenience store and talking to a former classmate of hers, she reacts in stunned silence and fear and looks none too pleased to see the customer offline. Alice, online, acts happy and shameless, while Alice, offline, is guarded and reserved in regards to her work.

Alice & Tinker online vs. offline in Cam

Then, once Lola is created later in the film, the separation of Alice becomes literal and has a radical effect on her: Alice's online self has been split into its own entity that becomes an exaggerated version of Alice's performativeness. Alice, herself, then becomes a (justifiably) exaggerated version of her offline self: She becomes more fearful as the predicament escalates and forces her into more unwanted situations, and tries to maintain her reservedness in regards to her work until she can't conceal it anymore in her offline life when Lola's performances get bootlegged and her brother's friends expose Lola to Alice's family, whom assume its Alice they're seeing. The radicalness of the difference between Alice and Lola comes to a head in the climax when Alice and Lola are engaging in a battle via webcam. To be precise, it comes to a head when Alice breaks her nose on camera, something that is shown in bloody detail. When Lola has to repeat per the rules of their battle, her repeating of Alice's action is shown by the camera glitching and distorting until Lola has the same wounds as Alice. It is by this radical difference that we see the full extent of the difference between Alice and Lola, and it is also by this radical difference that Alice is able to defeat and delete Lola as the audience witnessing the battle crowns Alice the winner for actually breaking her nose in full detail. However, the film ends by showing that Alice has changed to the extent where the film ends with her restarting her career under the guise of a new persona, Eve. One of the meanings of this ending is to show us that Alice has embraced radical difference and is now proceeding by accepting difference over unification by totally separating herself into two selves: Alice and Eve.

Finally, Mazzei and Goldhaber apply postmodernism to Cam on a meta level: Specifically, through their decision in casting Madeline Brewer in the main roles of Alice and Lola. Jameson discusses in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism that "Postmodernisms have in fact been fascinated precisely by this whole 'degraded' schlock and kistch, of TV series [...] and the grade-B Hollywood film." This reflects their decision to cast Brewer whom, before Cam's release, was known for her work in TV series. Although interestingly, despite Jameson trying to claim that postmodernists consider television to be "schlock", Brewer has worked in multiple series that are considered the opposite, including Orange is the New Black, The Handmaid's Tale and Black Mirror. In fact, Goldhaber has discussed in interviews that he and Mazzei were inspired to approach Brewer about acting in Cam after Goldhaber's father saw her performance in Black Mirror and singled her out to them. So, while Cam definitely has a fascination with TV series that checks off a postmodern box, it is of note that it is not the type of series that Jameson claims, but rather the "prestige TV" that has cropped up in the years since Jameson published his writing on postmodernism. It is also worth noting that the casting decision of a "prestige TV" actress like Brewer in Cam echoes the decision to cast Deborah Harry in Videodrome: As mentioned at the beginning, the casting of an iconic celebrity like Harry as the avatar of technology looking to lure a man for devious purposes is no coincidence. It can be argued that the casting of Brewer, who appears regularly on TV screens in popular TV series, as one character who makes her living performing on camera and another character who is used as the avatar of technology luring men for capitalistic purposes, is also not a coincidence.

Madeline Brewer: From Black Mirror to Cam

Now that we have established that Mazzei and Goldhaber's choice to utilize postmodern techniques in Cam that allow it to begin to establish its own identity apart from Videodrome, we can now explore another choice that allows Cam to fully craft its new new flesh: The decision Mazzei and Goldhaber made to incorporate feminist film techniques. This includes the film's playing with gender roles: Traditionally, it has been observed in film that men and women tend to have specific parts in the story to play, precisely that male roles are active and female roles as passive. As already stated, Cam defies those roles from the first scene by establishing Alice as the film's active protagonist, giving her control of the technology she uses for her career and, thus, control of the narrative. With Alice in charge of the narrative, her control pushes the men within the film into passive roles. Tinker, who is the closest the film has to a male lead, tries to break out of the passive role Alice has assigned for him by attempting to stalk her in real life. Alice demonstrates her hold over the narrative by refusing to meet with him outside of the internet. The playing with gender roles is to the extent that Alice's active control is only threatened by other women whom inhibit the same or a similar space to Alice: In one scene, Alice is performing a show in the vein of a romantic dinner, everything goes as planned until another camgirl orders the male customers to leave Alice's show to attend hers with the promise of nudity. Alice's active role is temporarily stolen by this rival, until she swiftly makes the decision to upstage this rival by performing a live sex show with a friend. With that, Alice restores her active control, although it is ultimately temporary as Alice's decision to ride a painful sybian-esque sex toy is the inciting incident that results in the birth of the film's actual antagonist for Alice: Lola.

As mentioned above, Lola usurps Alice's active control and forces her into a passive role for a large portion of the rest of the film. There are several interesting things to pick with regards to Lola and Cam's feminist film techniques: The first is that her creation comes right after the aforementioned sex show Alice does in which she rides a sex toy to try to boost herself on the website. Lola is created after Alice uses a phallic sex toy on herself, which allows for an argument that Lola is born out of Alice filling the void that a lack of phallus caused. Thus, to paraphrase a concept that Laura Mulvey wrote about in her text Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Lola could be considered Alice's child and, now that Lola has been created, it means that the website has considered Alice's use to it to have ceased now that she is a "mother" of sorts. The second is that when Alice is riding the sex toy, the camera focuses mostly on her face as she moves in pain from the sex toy while trying to appear turned on for her audience. Mulvey also wrote in the above text that women sometimes are "no longer the bearer of guilt but a perfect product, whose body, stylised and fragmented by close-ups, is the content of the film, and the direct recipient of the spectator's look." Is that not what is being done to Alice? She is being fragmented into pained close-ups of her face as she tries to perform for her spectators, which results in her being robbed of her active control of the narrative by Lola. Finally, it interesting to note that although Lola has gained the active control that Alice had, Lola uses that control to give the active role back to her male spectators and put herself in a passive role. While Alice is shown to have restraint and structure with her presentation, Lola is created to be an object purely for the male gaze alone. Lola has no restraint, performing shows that Alice would not.

The "birth" of Lola in Cam

With Lola now having control over the narrative, the central conflict of the film becomes Alice's race to defeat Lola and regain her power within the film's narrative. There are several set pieces where Alice is put into the role of the passive spectator that she formerly put her male customers into. To paraphrase Mulvey, Lola's enforced inactivity for Alice has bound her to her computer as another of Lola's spectators. This is best demonstrated in a set piece where Alice watches Lola perform a work out-themed show and spends a large amount of money to get Lola to spank and hit herself with a cat o'nine tails. This sequence is interesting as it causes another contradiction: Lola is the one with control, yet she is passive in her performance. Alice is bound to a passive voyeuristic role, yet is active in paying Lola to hurt herself. A similar contradiction occurs when Alice eventually seeks help from Tinker and another male customer, Barney, to figure out what exactly Lola is and how not only she, but multiple other camgirls, have been duplicated by this technology. Technically, Alice seeking help from two of her male spectators is giving them the active role in being the helpers and is putting herself in the passive role of needing their help. Yet, with Alice being the one to seek answers and trying to solve the mystery behind Lola, she is still the protagonist of the film and Tinker and Barney are in passive supporting roles to her active lead.

This directly leads into the climax where Alice goes live on camera to fight Lola with a Simon Says-type game where Lola has to copy Alice's exact action. The climatic battle escalates until Alice breaks her nose: Lola does not mimic Alice's action exactly, thereby giving Alice the victory and restoring her active control which she uses to delete Lola's account, which also deletes Lola for good. As with everything else in Cam, this climax has much to unpack: First, it is interesting that Alice defeats Lola with the decision to break her nose. After Alice and Lola both perform staged suicides, it is a genuine act of violence Alice enacts upon herself that allows her to defeat Lola. While the performative suicides still pandered to the voyeuristic gazes of their male spectators, Alice committing a genuine act of her violence that could potentially impact her "to-be-looked-at-ness" is what rejuvenates her active control. The second item of interest is Alice's use of the video camera as her weapon to defeat Lola. While some could argue that a video camera mounted on a tripod can be considered a phallic symbol of power that Alice must use to defeat her antagonist, one could also argue that the video camera on its own is a vaginal symbol. While the phallic sex toy she used on herself resulted in the birth of Lola gave Lola power, it is the vaginal video camera that Alice must use to regain her power and destroy what she has helped create. Finally, it is of note that after Alice has deleted Lola, Alice chooses to completely reboot her online persona. This results in Alice birthing the new Eve persona. However, unlike Lola who was created by technology, Eve is born entirely out of Alice's restored active control. The film ends with Alice/Eve beginning their first show, in total control of the film and their to-be-looked-at-ness.

Alice wins back control from Lola in Cam

To reiterate, when David Cronenberg made Videodrome back in 1983, he made the choice to introduce the film's female lead, Nicki through a camera as a double entendre: To present her as an image to the audiences of the film and to the male lead, Max, as an image created to represent the technology at the center of the film in its attempt to seduce him to its side. Cronenberg uses postmodern techniques to demonstrate that Nicki's role revolves around using her "to-be-looked-at-ness" to appeal to both Max and to the audience of Videodrome. When Isa Mazzei and Daniel Goldhaber made Cam in 2018, they introduce the film's protagonist, Alice, in the same way Videodrome introduced Nicki. However, Mazzei and Goldhaber quickly subvert expectations some may place on Alice by having Alice perform a staged suicide on camera with the aid of one of her male customers. With this twist, Alice is granted an active role within Cam that contrasts with the passive role Nicki plays within Videodrome. Mazzei and Goldhaber use this to set the stage for their film to build off of Videodrome's postmodernism by combining postmodernism with feminism, thereby transforming Videodrome's new flesh into Cam's own new new flesh.

Long live the new new flesh of Cam

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