Entanglements in the Dark Web: Cam and American Vandal

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When David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin made The Social Network in 2010, a lot of discourse was generated with a lot of genuine surprise that a film about people being in front of their computers would be so compelling to watch. There was reason for that reaction: there had been and have been many films that fail to really engage in modern communications whether on computers, social media, or texting. Many filmmakers and shows outright avoid ‘the smart phone issue’, setting films in periods that predated that technology or build a world where characters simply do not engage with those ways of communication and online interaction in the narrative. But as this decade has grown from The Social Network, there has gradually developed a syntax for how films use and integrate people on computers and smart phones, how people use social media and the ways people on those platforms use technology, such as cataloguing and uploading videos. Two works, a feature film and a television program, Cam (Daniel Goldhaber and Isa Mazzei) and season 2 of American Vandal (Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda) show the multifaceted complexities and personal stakes tied to each of their digital landscapes that go to show that you cannot just ‘get off your computer’ to remedy things when something bad happens to you online.

Cam and American Vandal, both available to stream on Netflix, both make perfect sense as entertainment to watch on your computer or electronic device. The films are not merely about their characters being entangled on the Internet–both use real-life platforms, apps, websites, and even in some cases create their own fictional but cannily similar to real-life websites and platforms which nail the dialogue our characters have with the great unknowns on the other side of their communications.

In American Vandal‘s second season, the two teenage documentary filmmakers from Season One, Sam (Griffin Guck) and Peter (Tyler Alvarez), are enlisted by the Catholic high school St. Bernadine in Washington state to solve a new incident: who spiked the cafeteria lemonade with laxatives to cause a massive ‘brown-out’ (read: diarrhea outbreak) and goes under the pseudonym “The Turd Burglar”? The Turd Burglar (online handle @theturdburglar) communicates their plans via social media with teases and oblique but ominous messages. At points even The Turd Burglar communicates with Peter and Sam as well. Part of this is lifted from common true crime tropes, such as criminals communicating with authorities, but in its high school setting and through contemporary technology, this becomes the bread and butter of American Vandal itself–a show that is a mockumentary and spoof of true crime docs in which series creator Tony Yacenda gets how to use online and smart phone communication as well as anyone. Season One (that dealt with vandalism in the teacher’s parking lot) was all about connecting clues from various witness accounts by using their phones and social media accounts which ultimate exonerated the accused. Season Two takes it a step further, namely unlike in Season One we definitively find out who committed the crime. The accused, teenager Kevin McClain, turns out to be an accessory and not the only accessory of The Turd Burglar. Peter and Sam quickly notice this is more than just a one-man job and find other students at the high school who are tied to The Turd Burglar. Like Kevin, they were all manipulated into committing these acts by blackmail because they were all catfished by an expelled student of St. Bernadine’s named Grayson Wentz, who was able to fool them all by copying and stealing from the social media account of a young woman from out of town.

The way American Vandal dives into this knotted plot is engrossing and unsettling all at once, one unshakeable scene being when Peter and Sam meet the girl who they were led to believe was the catfish of the St. Bernadine student only for her to turn out to be another victim and discovering her identity from her Instagram account got stolen on-camera. Then ‘The Dump’ (surely inspired from the iCloud leak photos of celebrities in 2014) occurs, where St. Bernadine’s students and a staff member have all of their compromising information and photos of themselves revealed to their student body and the local media. The vulnerabilities of teenagers being manipulated and used and the vulnerabilities of their technology being up for grabs to be stolen and used maliciously against them become intertwined. The season’s coda succinctly states in Peter’s narration, “We’re not the worst generation, we’re just the most exposed.”

Cam (a Blumhouse Production) is also about personal information getting compromised and stolen identity, in this case the stolen identity of a ‘cam girl’ an online sex worker on adult web sites. The film intelligently shows the blurred lines of online persona, sex work, reality, identity, and artifice, from the very start showing that not everything is as it seems. The film begins with Alice Ackerman (Madeline Brewer), who goes under the screen name of Lola­­­_Lola, broadcasting in her shag-carpeted, candy-colored room in her home as she interacts with fans who come to see her strip, perform sex acts, and other kinks that they jive with, which includes her pretending to kill herself. What makes this fake-out so effective is the building tension of Lola interacting with a troll in her comments section. It turns out that she and a friend are manipulating the situation, setting up a false troll to help Alice/Lola get attention and shoot up the rankings of the ultra-competitive cam girl website “FREEGIRLS.LIVE” (a fictional web site but a very credible imitation of that type of adult web site as far as layout and the quick, free-flowing messaging and interaction of user and performer). Over the course of the film, Alice finds out that what at first appears to be someone imitating her, or someone directly lifting videos from her shows and passing them off as their own. But it gets so much weirder than that. Cam was inspired by screenwriter Isa Mazzei’s own experiences as a cam girl which included having her own videos stolen, promoted as belonging to a different person on an adult web site. The film understands how these websites work and how the threat of stolen identity and how their anonymity can be breached and heightened. Losing your online identity becomes a kind of Steven Soderbergh meets Brian DePalma hyper-text. Alice has to confront her doppelgänger, who has become intertwined with her web persona because this is not just a hobby for her. It is lucrative work that pays her bills. So when Lola finds herself locked out of her online account, a financial resource is being cut off. This menacing omnipresence in her life is revealed to have happened because of her friend Tinker, the friend who had previously helped her rankings by posing as a troll, who created the account to feed directly into his fantasies that he felt Alice denied him.

Cam and American Vandal‘s disturbing depictions of being online can lead to cynical or alarmist readings of how bad being online can be. But that would be overlooking the many times each of them show the failure by those in power to protect these characters, whether they are still in high school or online sex workers.  School administrators, officials, as well as law enforcement in American Vandal look ridiculous in their quick rush to find a guilty party, as more ‘brown outs’ occur while Kevin McClain is under house arrest, and that they are unable to tell what is real versus manipulated, compromised ‘fake news’ shows how hapless the adults are in dealing with online-based crimes. In Cam, Alice’s run-ins with the adult web site’s customer service phone line goes nowhere and her attempt to get help from the police leads to nothing but their moral disapproval of her sex work and completely ignorant unsolicited advice like, ‘Just stay off the internet’.  Both works know how unrealistic this advice is, as the Internet is in each of their DNA formally and in how they both communicate in narrative to the viewer. One of my favorite sight gags in any film this year are the endless, ongoing messages that keep scrolling by the background in Cam whenever Alice is in the foreground. It is that level of detail becoming banal white noise that is exactly how to portray the 21st Century on-screen.

Both Cam and American Vandal know that they do not exist to solve the internet or show how to protect users with a safe and secure online experience, like a PSA or after-school special, but they do show how normal and abnormal online experiences have their own ebbs and flows. Those ebbs and flows can be significantly consequential to the depiction of the Internet as a Wild West that is boundless, as equal in promise as potential hazard. With that in mind, who could ever say a film about being in front of your computer or phone is boring?

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The Day After (Hong Sangsoo, 2017)

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The Day After: Never Forget a Face

For most films and to most film viewers, the detail can appear so minimal: the opening credits. Nobody would confuse an opening credits of a Hong Sangsoo film with say, the dazzling, intricate opening credit works done by Saul Bass for films by Alfred Hitchcock. But in The Day After, Hong Sangsoo’s film that premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and which is now opening in Seattle on May 25th, the credits plays differently in the context of so many previous Hongs. Instead of bold colored backgrounds that the credit text fills as we’ve been conditioned to find from the prolific South Korean auteur, The Day After has no title cards and instead the credits play straight into the film. Minor and unnoticeable for most, but for Hong fans who have often only had the opportunity to catch his films at various festivals, the change caused a kind of jolting reaction. However, the opening credits are just the start of the feeling that with this film, Hong Sangsoo has shifted and is turning in a new direction.

The Day After is a fascinating film in its non-linear, cyclical structure and is one of Hong’s most formally confident works that should be striking to both fans and those previously unfamiliar with his work alike. Hong’s movies often have featured male characters in a crisis, artists (most of them film directors) unfulfilled by public reception and various degrees of success, and often very aware of their poor behavior, which includes disgraced drunkenness from too much soju and infidelity. It has been quite irresistible for reviewers of Hong’s works to tie those films’ portrayals to autobiography, that art imitates life/life imitates art reaching new heights with the tabloid scandal of Hong’s marriage dissolving after an extramarital affair with South Korean actress Kim Minhee (who at this point has made five films with him, including The Day After). Hong’s films themselves do feel confessional in a way that invites such readings, his works full of auto-critique in the various misbehaviors of his main characters and the fragility of masculinity, particularly in the character of the male artist played to hilarious, exasperated comic effect, which has earned him comparisons to Eric Rohmer and Woody Allen. Not everyone appreciates this auto-critique, however, mainly due to how often this has been repeated in his work over and over. It would also be reductive to say his films are, as they have been deemed and dismissed, ‘all the same’. Hong’s early works showed a melodramatic streak as well as a creative, unique playfulness with structure that has become more intricate, audacious, and mysterious but also highly aware of the nature of his films’ non-linearity, an artist completely confident in how to disperse and re-litigate his own film’s stories, logic, and plots, even halfway through.

The Day After continues and expands on those virtues while making choices that confront and interrogate his characters in a more direct way. In fact, The Day After begins with an interrogation by a wife, Song Haewoo (Cho Yunhee), of her husband, Kim Bongwan (Kwan Haehyo), over her suspicion that he’s having an affair. It’s frank, brutal, and direct, taking place in their home kitchen, a setting often synonymous with marital domesticity and bliss. Infidelity may be a mark and trait of many Hong characters but rarely so early in his films is the act, not yet seen by the viewer, discovered and called out, and by the harmed party no less. What proceeds after in this film is not so much connecting the dots to that first moment but slowly shifting perspectives from Bangwon to a woman who might have and could have meant something to him.

Shot in black-and-white (as Hong has shot with other notable works such as Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors and The Day He Arrives), The Day After follows Bongwan, who runs a small publishing house in South Korea and has hired a new employee, Song Areum (Kim Minhee), to replace the woman he had an affair with, Lee Changsook (Kim Saebyeok). Bongwan, who the audience has seen internalizing and carrying much pain for his actions while walking the lonely city streets at night, appears to have taken an immediate liking to Areum, whom he invites to lunch, asking her questions that feel less professional and more like romantic advances. Bongwan cannot seem to resist his impulses, ones which have taken a toll on his wife, his lover (who repeatedly calls him cowardly), and, ultimately, Areum, who gets attacked by Haewoo on her first day at work after being mistaken for the lover.

Mistaken identity, memory, and place, or being unable to place a face to a person, act, or ideal, is at the center of The Day After. Haewoo is hurt and cannot help but act out against a figure that had her husband step out–she is not attacking the person but the act and the actor that played a role in her betrayal, and Bongwan cannot seem to break his circle of repeated indiscretions such that after one woman may or may not be out of the picture, he chases another. Hong casts a cynical eye toward Bongwan’s behavior and resolution in a way more damning and more cutting than any previous “auto-critique” in his work. That cynicism exists due to the shift of perspective from Bongwan to Areum.

Areum enters her first day at the publishing house as an admirer of Bongwan. She at first goes along with Bongwan’s suggestions and questions that blur the lines of a simple work relationship. But her opinion of Bongwan declines as soon as she gets caught in his tangled web of love, life, and work which results in her job status at the publishing house wavering over the course of the day once the attack she suffers at the hand’s of Bongwan’s wife occurs. There is something unusual about Areum from the beginning that makes her immediately different from the wife and the lover. Having no history with Bongwan, she also probes him and even under her non-judgmental gaze, Bongwan falls short in answering her questions. Her interrogation should be the least hard and he still struggles. They were never meant to be and it is clear that Areum dodges a bullet.

Kim Minhee’s performance, while not as soulful, vulnerable, and spur of the moment as her turns in On The Beach At Night Alone or Right Now, Wrong Then, still relies on her physicality and innocent but not-suffering-fool’s intelligence. When she first appears at the publishing house she appears overwhelmed by the claustrophobic confines of stacks upon stacks of books, looking very meek. She practically seems to be on the verge of escaping the frame when she is shot, on the fringes, feeling like she could pull away at any moment because she is not fated for Bongwan’s world. When he asks her what she believes in, Areum confesses she does not feel like she is the master of her own self, “not a leading character”. Then in the film’s perspective shift, once leaving Bongwan’s orbit, rather than leaving the film, Areum becomes more centered, in control, moving towards God’s plan for her, as she becomes the film’s leading character. Areum slowly moves towards the center of the frame that culminates in one of the most beautiful scenes of Hong’s career with a close-up of Areum in the passenger’s seat of a car taking in the night.

Hong’s longtime cinematographer, Kim Hyeonggu, whose filmography has extended to working with other South Korean masters Bong Joonho and Lee Changdong, gets wrongfully maligned for Hong’s films having a seeming aesthetic simplicity to them, known more for pans and zooms than something showier. The black-and-white in The Day After is beautiful and sleek, but film’s visual pleasures come from Hong’s confidence in his cinematographer and leading actress to visually present a character taking the reigns of film from our original protagonist with the way Areum is shot and is performed through the course of the film. There is also the clever staging, scenes in which Areum is the only one to see the faces of characters while the audience is left to look at Kim Minhee’s expressive facial reactions, suggestive and intriguing.

After making what was his most emotionally naked film to date with On The Beach At Night Alone, The Day After also has a raw nerve in it, but it gives the audience the ability to step away. The film features a musical motif (composed by Hong himself) that takes on the most high-pitched moments of sorrow that can be so operatic but also gives them a comic twist due to the fraught emotions which consume certain characters, an effect which seems purposeful. When shifting from Bongwan to Areum, the film and viewer are emancipated and so is that motif. There are other stories to tell about what The Day After presents and moves towards. But it is not simple in its shifts: for example Areum return to Bangwon’s publishing house, which becomes a major comic payoff. Areum seems to be the only character not trapped within a cycle of behaviors and relationship drama. She can confess freely, experience, and learn to move forward in life, a new type of character for Hong Sangsoo that makes the film a flashpoint in his career and one of his best films.