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'Cam' Brilliantly Depicts The Complicated Horrors Of Our Digital Age

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Photo from London Film Festival

And it defies every sex worker stereotype out there

The Vibra-Tron, known to some by the brand name Sybian, is a large, vibrating saddle designed to be straddled by a woman for full-body orgasms of unparalleled intensity. It's also the newest gimmick for cam girl Lola, a driven performer willing to ignore the whispered warnings that prolonged use can short-circuit the clitoris for life if it means she'll climb the rankings of the streaming site that hosts her. Hair draped just-so over her bare chest, she tries to hold her composure while her lower half buzzes with overwhelming sensation. As she shivers and trembles atop the loudly humming machine, it looks like she's approaching something more akin to spontaneous combustion than climax.

Alice, the woman behind Lola, holds herself to three simple rules: She won't use her real name, she won't tell her viewers that she loves them, and she won't fake it. Deep down, she might even believe that final rule is her secret to success, the counterbalance between her flirty routines' playacted fakery and their bedrock of genuine physicality. Just because she's putting on a show, doesn't make what she's doing any less real.

Madeline Brewer, the actress behind the woman behind Lola, found herself in a relatively similar position while shooting the new cyberthriller Cam. She may not have actually been reduced to a jelly by the Vibra-Tron, but, in that moment, she felt acutely aware of being half-naked with a camera pointed at her. How was she going to come off looking? Would the feminist underpinnings she saw in the script be apparent in the finished cut? Had she unwittingly signed on for something sleazy?

Attaining the excruciating intimacy of both this scene and the film that contains it required an absolute, mutual trust between Cam's director Daniel Goldhaber, its writer Isa Mazzei, and their star Brewer. Over the months spent assembling this complicated, uncommonly empathetic meditation on sex and the online business that's sprung up around it, they achieved an extraordinary creative synthesis founded on care, communication, and respect. As television fumbles to form a new protocol for staging and depicting graphic scenes, the three collaborators have constructed an exemplar of ethical erotics.

On a humid afternoon in Brooklyn, at the sunlit apartment where Goldhaber laid his head during post-production on Cam, he and Mazzei perch on a couch dusted with cat hair while Brewer articulates how quickly their minds melded. "The big challenge in playing someone who doesn't always wear a lot of clothes is my physical consciousness of my body, and trying not to think about what my arms look like when I should be thinking about this performance. It was about trying to eliminate that voice." She pauses. "After the first week, it was pretty much gone." By the final week, she didn't bother with the robe between takes.

***

Goldhaber and Mazzei met as high schoolers in Colorado, brought together by an incident involving testicular torsion that left Goldhaber with an unfortunate nickname he prefers not to repeat these days. The collision of two volatile personalities made their tenure as boyfriend and girlfriend as passionate as it was turbulent; living room screaming matches, astonishingly ill-conceived romantic gestures, declarations of undying devotion. After their less-than-congenial breakup and divergence for their college years, however, they couldn't fully extricate themselves from each other's lives. They accrued some professional experience—he got his bearings on a live set, she got her feet wet in the world of camming—and kept in close contact, sharing a fascination for the mechanics of the other's job.

When Mazzei decided she wanted to try her hand at producing her own pornography, she knew just the director to call. She and Goldhaber learned how to harmoniously coexist as artists where they couldn't as a couple, and an emboldened Mazzei gave thought to a feature-length script. Unsettled by the repeated discovery of her own videos relabeled under unflattering titles on adult tube sites, Mazzei translated that anxiety to the story of a cam girl who tries to log on for a show, only to see her exact likeness already up on screen. Her desperate efforts to vanquish this digital doppelgänger drive Alice to the brink of a distinctly modern madness, the kind that only comes from reconciling ourselves with the alter egos we all cultivate online. It may not be the first, but Cam is without a doubt the truest film about the abject horrors of being on social media.

The challenge of bringing this story to the screen reenergized Mazzei at a time of stasis. "I didn't go into making this film wanting to leave camming," she says. "By the time we had started working on this film, I had left the industry and was working as a web developer. The choice to leave camming came from a lot of different places, but for me, sex work was an incredible thing that helped me learn about myself and taught me how to own my body in a way I hadn't felt before. It was a creative outlet, and then I just started burning out on it. My shows were getting repetitive, I was feeling uninspired. I was no longer doing the cool, weird shows I wanted to do, just a creative slump. I started looking for what could be next. Getting into features was an accident. I thought Cam would just be something I did with Danny."

Her phrasing, the conception of doing this with Goldhaber and not for him, speaks to what he describes as the "egalitarian process" between them that would come to include Brewer. They afforded everyone in their cast a rare degree of control, encouraging actresses to personally select an activity that made them feel comfortable for a montage flipping through cam channels. Brewer fully embraced her sense of "performative femininity," a phrase often repeated on set. Over coffees and educational Showgirls viewings, Mazzei and Goldhaber found in Brewer a thoughtful kindred spirit, who shared their views on womanhood, sexual expression, and the media's fraught relationship to both.

"I was afraid that I wouldn't do right by the community of sex workers and cam girls," Brewer confesses. "Isa and Danny going through everything was so helpful, talking about nudity—both the line of what I can and can't do legally, but what's comfortable, and what's contributing to the story—until I had personally come to terms with what my body looks like. This is it, this is what it looks like, carrying me through 16-hour days. I've thanked it for that. I like that I can look like a regular person, and not a Hollywood actor."

"There were times when Maddie suggested that a scene needed more nudity," Goldhaber adds, "and there were times when she told us that she thought the nudity was unnecessary. In both instances, she was always correct. She had a barometer for this, and through her body, she became an integral part of the storytelling. We could fairly call her a co-filmmaker."

The credits make it official, appending the "film by" title to both Mazzei and Goldhaber in equal standing. They don't see themselves as fitting into the auteurist mold that ascribes a film's intention to a single author; they can hardly tell where his contributions end and hers begin, and vice versa.

"Sets are designed in a regimented way, so people would come to me when they had questions about directing," Goldhaber says. "Something that took a couple weeks to figure out was how we integrate Isa into this process in a way that, on one hand, respects that a film set needs to run quickly and smoothly, and on the other, ensures that Isa's there to protect the integrity of the vision. I had never directed, and Isa had never written, and in many ways, she had more on-set experience than I did."

"We see it as a film that is 100 percent his and 100 percent mine, not 50-50," Mazzei continues. "It's a co-authorship. It's our movie and our vision. Danny was involved in writing and the story process, I was involved in production and casting. We did everything together. The way the credits work, it just made sense to split it this way. Technically, he did the directing and I did the writing, but it's a shared vision."

Mazzei's responsibilities extended beyond that of a mere consultant, someone brought onto set to spruce up a scene with bits of verisimilitude. She and Goldhaber experimented with in-ear radio hookups and quickly accepted that they could not handle having each other's voice in their brain at all times. Mazzei would instead watch takes on a video monitor setup and duck onto the set to give notes, sometimes reframing shots that she perceived as treating the subject like an object. Goldhaber credits her as the director of the Vibra-Tron scene, having set Brewer's body language and called out cues to gradually push her to that fever pitch. Mazzei realized that the only thing standing between cinema and the pervasive male gaze is the willingness to shed it.

"[Avoiding exploitative elements] can really be as simple as placement of the camera," she says. "It's not hard, which is why I think it's ridiculous that we still see so many problematic films in theaters in 2018. Everyone on the crew was 100 percent united in this mission to make a respectful film, but a lot of our defaults in cinematography and direction have faults. For example, in the Vibra-Tron scene, when Maddie takes off her robe, and she's topless, someone immediately started calling for 'ice, ice, where's the ice, where's the nipple ice?' That's something standard on-set, that if someone's nipples are out, you're going to ice them. And I'm saying, 'No, no, no. If they're hard, they're hard, if they're not, they're not.' That's stupid and definitely thought up by men. Nipples aren't always hard!"

***

I first made Goldhaber's acquaintance at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016, and we still trade notes on the day's notable new releases. Over the past two years, I've received regular updates on Cam's long journey to the public, which ends today when the film appears on Netflix along with a small theatrical run in New York. A laborious post-production process necessitated thousands of effects shots to build Lola's computer interface and the 98 pages of text that scrolls through the chat window. Despite a co-sign from hit factory Blumhouse, Goldhaber and Mazzei had trouble landing a film festival premiere slot and a distributor. For a scary movie, it wasn't scary enough, and for a movie about sex, it wasn't sexy enough. Mazzei still tenses up when recalling one encounter in which an executive conspiratorially leaned forward and asked her, "So, what's the weirdest thing you ever had to do?"

Perseverance led them to Alamo, the boutique theater chain that opened Cam during its Fantastic Fest in Austin and will screen it at their Drafthouse locations. The past few months have been a whirlwind of travel, as Mazzei and Goldhaber parlayed their placement at Fantastic into a slew of other festival appearances and preview screenings. The reception has been largely positive, though not without its detractors. Brewer's parents saw the film the night prior to our interview, and her mother "fucking loves it." As for her father? "He's a little set in his ways. He told Isa point-blank that he hates the movie. 'Maddie did great, but I hate that movie. No offense!'"

For Mazzei and Goldhaber, the most meaningful response has come from the sex work community that they strove to support above all else. From start to finish, they made their chief goal the honest portrayal of the day-to-day hustle, the psychological highs of being desired and the lows of being treated like meat, the sense of craft in a valid occupation some still look down on as a last resort. Mazzei lived it, and Goldhaber did his best to approximate the experience with a brief, sobering stint as a cam boy. ("I have a two-second cameo in the film, and it took about an hour to get that one shot. I'm very uncomfortable on camera, and I have no sexual charisma.") Wielding a bit more perspective than most, they were both fed up with films about sex work, from the "hooker with a heart of gold" bull-nonsense to the alarmist concern of Hot Girls Wanted. "Portraying sex workers as victims with no agency, not choosing to do it…" Mazzei shakes her head. "There are people forced into it, but there's also a large faction of women doing this as a personal choice, and that's rarely shown."

She wanted Alice to be a far cry from a sob story. The film introduces her as a motivated young woman with a methodical commitment to her daily grind, charting her progress with a meticulously kept calendar. Mazzei knows sex workers to be industrious, resourceful, and innovative by nature; a cam girl must be, in order to gain a following and hold its fickle attention week in and week out. Situating this intuitive, nonjudgmental vantage point in her deepest convictions proportionally moved the viewers she was most eager to please.

"That's the only thing that really mattered to me," Mazzei says. "To have women come up to me after screenings, sometimes in tears; to be interviewed by someone who brings up that she cammed for a decade; to feel that validation, of being told that someone felt seen for the first time, and really represented—all of it is incredibly humbling."

From the particulars of sex work's thorny politics, Cam expands to a generation-wide register by zeroing in on the internet's peculiar combination of authenticity and artifice. Alice's surreal predicament with the so-called "Lola II" renders literal the millennial's shared unease for losing command over the avatars we curate on social media, or even being replaced by them; personal brand as existential nightmare. The film ends on an ambiguous note and refuses to serve up a definitive solution to the cause of our heroine's shadow identity, in effect leaving her to continue reestablishing just what kind of person she's going to be. A woman certainly knows who she is when she's atop the Vibra-Tron, doing what she can not to explode, and yet Cam contends that in a digital economy, a marketable sense of self is seldom so clear-cut. Mazzei, Goldhaber, and Brewer fostered their delicate codependency first to make properly handling sensitive material a possibility. But somewhere along the way, perhaps in the general vicinity of the extreme orgasmic rodeo, they found solace in one another from the uncertainty that lingers through their film's final shots.

"When I started camming, I was very young and very naive," Mazzei declares, slowly and carefully. "I figured I could just be real, that I'd be myself and people would love that. But it's impossible to be yourself online. You are curating your presence, whether it's about deciding when you log on or putting on a light to make yourself look better, you're creating the impression. In your 20s, you're already having a crisis all the time, and to couple that with having a persona online that people like, and wondering whether they really like her or like you. What percent of that person is me? Where are the boundary lines? How can we know?"

Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Credits:
Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds

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Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.