Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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At The Picture Show
November 2018

Cam

Lost (information super) highway

On identities, doppelgängers, and digital disembodiment handled in distinctly analog form

Cam
Netflix
Director: Daniel Goldhaber
Screenplay: Isa Mazzei
Starring: Madeline Brewer, Patch Darragh, Melora Walters, Michael Dempsey, Imani Hakim, Devin Druid and Samantha Robinson
TV-MA / 1 hour, 34 minutes / 1.85:1
Limited release / Netflix
(out of four)

Cam is a smart idea treated like a stupid one. An intangible premise treated like a tangible one. A surreal experience treated like a practical one.

The film's pivot point is not just a blunt violation of its protagonist's existence, but a violation of reality itself. In simple terms, it's a matter of identity theft, but at the most intimate, existential level. The conflict - and the antagonist, such as it is - exists beyond physical space, and thus beyond physical confrontation or negotiation. Tell that to director Daniel Goldhaber, who's so flummoxed by his own movie's plot that he seems utterly convinced it exists in a universe in which real-world rules apply.

A rising star on the camgirl circuit - online "Lola_Lola," offline Alice (Madeline Brewer) - comes face to face, or interface to interface, with herself. Not just a doppelgänger but an indistinguishable copy, an identical impostor who has absorbed every facet of Alice's online persona, her business, her very being. This impostor has taken on a life of its own. Alice's life, yes - or Lola_Lola's, at least to whatever extent they overlap - but an inaccessible version of it. A sentient intelligence whose presence negates that of its original model; a parasite that consumes, becomes, the host. There's only room for one Lola_Lola in this town.

This is the stuff of Lynchian abstraction, mixed with pseudo-Cronenbergian preoccupations with physical transformation by way of technology. A digital Invasion of the Body Snatchers. A Twilight Zone-like nightmare of erasure. The premise cannot be explained, rationalized or even understood on practical terms, and yet this movie tries to do all of those things.

My mind keeps going back to the one-sheet poster (seen above), with its hallucinatory spectre of distortion, one visage melting into a refracted replica. If only the film itself had any sense of distortion (visual or otherwise) to match its protagonist's (presumptive) psychological delirium. Directing from a screenplay by Isa Mazzei, Goldhaber treats Alice's situation not as the surreal metaphysical threat that it is, but like a mystery that can be solved and/or a villain who can be defeated. Alice gets locked out of her online account and shortly thereafter discovers what she assumes is a glitchy system re-broadcasting one of her previous shows. In any case, Lola_Lola is broadcasting live ... except she's not. Not the real Lola_Lola, anyway.

And that's the moment right there. The moment when things should get weird. When we've gone through the looking glass for good. (The film has the same reference point, for the record. Our heroine is named Alice and the mirror motif is articulated clearly and even figures into the resolution of the narrative. We get Mad Hatter references and probably some other allusions as well - though nothing about a white rabbit, at least as far as I recall.)

Except things don't get weird. Instead, we get a lot of Alice pounding on doors looking for answers, making frantic phone calls, tracking down possible suspects, even calling the police and filing a report. Hello officer, I'd like to report a spectral artificial intelligence that stole my identity and is now impersonating me and trying to replace me completely. I repeat: A metaphor is trying to kill me. Send help.

Cam treats the looming existential oblivion of Alice's digital dissociation as basically one long, obnoxious customer-service experience. (Try that the other way around and you might have something.) An identity has been co-opted - stolen - and Goldhaber seems to think it's a simple matter of solving a mystery. He makes the whole thing seem ordinary, as if a credit card has been stolen - or an idea, or an ID card - instead of a soul. Personal property instead of the person herself. The scene of the crime is physically nonexistent - some abstract spiritual intersection of data and consciousness - and the film keeps on trying to bring it down to a tactile, logical level. It's like trying to negotiate with a dream, or chase your own shadow.

With regard to the way the film handles its plot, the music takes on real significance. As things ramp up in Alice's investigation (which begins as a misguided whodunit and evolves into a half-baked conspiracy), Gavin Brivik's original score evokes - quite deliberately, I assume - the agitated, propulsive, jazzy bounce of Jon Brion's Punch-Drunk Love score. That film pivoted on an identity theft of its own, with a seedy phone-sex operation using a credit-card number to gather personal information and extort poor, lonely Barry Egan (Adam Sandler). Punch-Drunk Love turned that personal violation into a quasi-surreal, almost out-of-body experience; Cam takes what is basically a possession narrative and turns it into something that feels all too sensible. Not only does it fail to register the enigmatic primal terror of, say, recent doppelgänger-themed efforts like Black Swan, Enemy, The Double or Double Lover, it doesn't find much of a psychological wavelength at all. It is far too firmly grounded. This is a feverish head-trip that instead feels like a rather ordinary narrative maze.

At least given its self-imposed limitations, the film figures out where to go reasonably well; the climax is a clever way to playfully confront the premise - even if it's ultimately a bit too clean, presuming to solve a nebulous conspiratorial force that can't, almost by default, actually be solved.

There's a lot to mine for a movie premised on notions of online identity. Even something as simple as identity verification - and the increasing number of steps it sometimes takes - is such a common frustration of modern living that it seems ripe for existential horror. The way online existence fragments the self into distinct personalities is fertile ground. Cam approaches that distinctly modern terrain, and yet it doesn't quite seem to comprehend what it's gotten itself into.

You can contact Chris at cinebellamy@gmail.com.


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