“For there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.” That is what the narrator of nineteenth century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s electric Archaic Torso of Apollo concludes after encountering a headless statue in the Louvre. For Rilke, the fruits of art and beauty are not free, as it were. When being present for a work of art, he says that we must work to perform the labor of self-reflection and -betterment and take seriously the power of art. If we do this, we, too, could be “suffused with brilliance from inside” like the hollowed statue of Apollo.
Dan Goldhaber’s Cam, the 2018 psychological thriller about a sex worker’s journey to reclaim her stolen identity, may not have had Rilke in mind when they were making their revelatory film. Be that as it may, the words that haunt Rilke’s the end of poem offer a way into parsing the film. Part of what makes Cam exemplary–so disorienting, and so resonant–is that it sets out to dismantle genre conventions, and asks the viewers of the film to do the work of self-examination. The directors seem to be saying: You must change your preconceptions about sex work.
The horror of the movie doesn’t lie in the grotesque. It isn’t very bloody, save for an enduring opening scene where the very driven Alice (Madeline Brewer) is performing the role of “Lola,” a slightly sheepish camgirl with a penchant for outlandish gags rising in popularity on the fictional site FreeGirls.Live. Sitting in her millennial pink room, a user goads Alice with increasing intensity to slit her throat. The other chat room users look on in horror–commenting with emojis, the chat room echoing with a firestorm of ‘dings’–as she slices her neck open and falls limp. Until she gets up again. It is just prosthetics, and the user fake goading her on is one of her best clients.
This scene lingers particularly because it conditions the viewer. Goldhaber is telling us that while the viewer may have thought that Alice was going to be a victim succumbing to misogynistic pressures, she is actually a step ahead of the trolls. As the viewer fluctuates between watching the low-fi footage denoting presence in the chatroom, and the gorgeous, more cinematic footage of the film, our fears and desires are being writ large: the spectator is fascinated with Alice’s provocations, whetting our appetite for the extreme, a “will she or won’t she” paranoia. We live in a world where we expect dangerous onscreen behaviors, and are conditioned by the patriarchy to think of women as craving that kind of attention–and sex workers doubly so.
But Alice is dedicated to her work, always thinking about ways to improve her craft while also satisfying her clients’ appetite for the extreme. She treats her job as an art and a labor that takes up all of her waking hours. The horror of the film lies in her identity being usurped; of an artist being discredited for her work, and her image falling out of her control. As she wakes up one morning after performing at a local clubhouse to find that she has been locked out of her account, she turns on the site to find that in her place is a woman named Lola who looks exactly like her, being broadcast in her house, but whose actions are alien. To her surprise, the false Lola is much more confident and brazen than her, and is quickly becoming more popular. Tech support is uncaring. Local law enforcement is judgemental and predatory. One client seems to want to help her, but his motives ooze with entitlement and greed. It’s the horror of a world that does not care about women and regard certain professions as “debased.” The drive of the film is Alice pursuing what she is owed.
It is no accident that the false Lola is somewhat aspirational. She appears effortless, devoid of fear and the need for capital–as Alice depends on sex work for her livelihood, but it is clear that she is making a small fortune. Lola appears detached from the material conditions of sex work, while off-screen Alice bites her nails nervously, and navigates complicated social and familial dynamics. Throughout her journey, Alice begins to almost emulate her on-screen doppelganger in assertiveness. In a gripping final scene, the internet becomes an opportunity for (possible) innovation and redemption, a place where identity and authenticity are mutable, but is rife with creative possibilities. It’s something limitless, but the dangers that lurk–such as the mysterious entity that profits off of women’s images and creations–are inexhaustible. From the perspective of an artist like Alice, there’s something freeing about the idea that reinvention is always possible. Cam asks us to reflect on our relationship with the web, and the folks who create some of its most viral content. But also, it asks us to examine ourselves, and to dismantle harmful cinematic tropes.