netflix’s ‘cam’ is creepy as hell and makes sharp commentary about sex work
Where depictions of pornography on screen have often make it look seedy, grim or goofy, 'Cam' makes sex work look more or less exactly like the thing it is — a job.
In Cam -- which is essentially a hybrid of a David Lynch film, Black Mirror and the meme in which two Spidermen are pointing at each other -- a cam sex worker wakes up one morning to discover that she’s been locked out of her account. Curiouser and curiouser, she’s still broadcasting, and curiouser and more sinister still, the girl onscreen happens to look exactly like her. To pit two women who look identical against one another is not an unusual move in horror, given both the superstition that to see one’s doppelgänger spells imminent death, and the fact that the genre’s victims are more often female than they are male. It is also not unusual in pornography, where to encounter someone who looks just like you (if you are, for instance, a hot, thin white girl with killer abs) is certain, and to encounter someone who looks just like you but is younger, thinner, less inhibited or more eager to please may spell the death of your career.
The cam girl, Alice, who performs as “Lola” and is played by Madeline Brewer, is far less terrified by the possibility that she has lost her mind than by the certainty that she has lost her revenue stream. This did not seem to me to be an unrealistic reaction. Not technically being human, the not-her version of her does not have sexual boundaries. (“I don’t do public shows,” the real Alice insists, “I don’t tell guys I love them, and I don’t fake my orgasms. My rules.”) Her doppelgänger does not share these rules. It is also tireless, unflagging. It’s incapable of being angered by, or irritated by, its customers, and because it does not in any real, biological sense have a brain, it does not have intrusive thoughts, unsexy feelings.
“Agency” is not an issue, since to have agency, it is necessary to be sentient, self-interested. It does not know what “self-care” is, or family, and it does not need to eat, or pay rent, or to carve out “me time”. In the film’s first 30 minutes, before Alice ends up locked out by her double, she is working tirelessly to move up the ranks at the generically-named FreeGirlsLive.com. She is ambitious and inventive, and at times exhausted. After one show, in which she convincingly and bloodily fakes her own death, she climbs from 65 to 53. “I’m, like, this fucking close to being in the top 50,” she says. “But how am I supposed to hold my spot, not sleep?” “I cammed 70 hours this week,” her friend commiserates, “and my rank hasn’t even budged.”
Cam is the debut feature of a male director, Daniel Goldhaber, and a female sex-worker-turned-screenwriter, Isa Mazzei. Its horror scenes and post-Spring-Breakers visual flourishes are smart; Mazzai’s attention to the details of Alice’s life, the way her work fits into it, is smarter. Pornography is not glamorised or demonised, and if Alice is tired and overworked, occasionally disgusted by the things she does for money, she is maybe no more so than the girl from her high school that she meets cleaning up vomit in a supermarket aisle. The cam girls’ sets are drenched in both millennial pink, and a shade I might call “Blue Velvet”, after Lynch, but which could just as easily be called “De Palma Blue”.
Both auteurs are invoked in Cam, although where Lost Highway made porn look seedy, interchangeable with snuff, and Body Double made it somehow simultaneously grim and goofy, Cam makes it look more or less exactly like the thing it is — a job. I have not worked in the sex industry, but I am not exactly unfamiliar with working long hours for unreliable, sometimes negligible pay. I have been sexually harassed, treated like shit.
"Lost Highway made porn look seedy, interchangeable with snuff. Body Double made it somehow simultaneously grim and goofy. Cam makes it look more or less exactly like the thing it is — a job."
I moved house two full months ago, and like Alice I find my ‘cam room’ (read: office) perfectly unpacked, a shrine to getting paid, while the rest of my life remains half-boxed, neglected. This is not to say that working as a writer is the same thing as being a cam girl; it is just to say that being self-employed, being “part of the gig economy”, or working “flexi hours” or whatever else we are supposed to call existing in this specific way under capitalism, sucks universally.
Some spoilers, as I firmly believe it’s impossible to talk about Cam’s even-handedness per sex work fully without first revealing how it actually ends: after uncovering the sort-of-truth about the doppelganger, which appears to have been generated by something more supernatural than a tech glitch or a hack, Alice engages with the double on their shared turf, online, turning on her webcam to create a visual feedback loop. (The way she kills it is the weakest thing in Cam, lousy with gore and sparse on logic, but the way that mirrors are engaged with mirrors, screens with screens, makes it look perfect; visually, perhaps more than De Palma or Lynch, Cam looks like the work of the photographer Juno Calypso).
By the end of the ordeal, Alice is broken-nosed and bleeding, with her face irreparably damaged. Mazzai says in interviews that she did not want Cam to end in such a way that it became a cautionary tale, which is perhaps why it’s inevitable that after her wounds have healed, we see Alice cover her scars with make-up and return to camming, ranked at something close to 16,000 and in a fully-concealing costume. Alice and her alter-ego, Lola, have completely separated for the preservation of the real girl’s sanity. It is not, I would argue, an especially happy ending, but it feels true. Without a safety net and with ambition, we do not get to give up work, even it becomes apparent that it might be killing us. We find our coping mechanisms; we divide ourselves in two.