Screenlife’s What You Make It: Thoughts on Searching, Profile, Unfriended: Dark Web, and Cam

By Jason Anderson

It’s one of the most cunning ironies in Isa Mazzei and Daniel Goldhaber’s Cam (2018) that just beyond the edges of the screen that dominates the protagonist’s existence is… another frame. It’s one of those chintzy, gilded affairs that an earlier generation of art enthusiasts used to spruce up velvet Elvis paintings, Margaret Keane knockoffs, and other garage-sale treasures; you’d also find them around mirrors in hotels you never visit twice. Here, it encases a super-sized monitor, thereby turning the room’s most conspicuous piece of tech (which itself is topped by the camera that sends the heroine’s own image out into the world) into another emblem of cutesy, knowing artifice. So it fits right in with the faux-fur-covered objects that fill the faux-personal space where the film’s ill-fated cam-girl Alice, a.k.a. Lola_Lola (Madeline Brewer), cheerfully caters to the requests of her pseudonymous fanbase. That is, until she’s usurped by a doppelganger who eagerly trumps both Alice’s softcore on-camera frolics and her more discomfiting sideline specialty of staging gruesome mock suicides. Given the increasing nastiness of what the screen displays—though Alice’s own eyes are usually fixed on the box next to her image, with its multi-coloured text stream of incoming encouragements, misogynistic bile, and donations—it’s understandable if she wants to prettify the boundaries a little.

The fact that we even see beyond the edges of Alice’s primary screen is another sign of Cam’s somewhat peripheral status within the emerging subgenre of “screenlife,” as its foremost proponents would like you to call it. But despite the more conventional mise en scène it adopts for much of its running time, Cam still feels very much of a piece with more stringent efforts to transpose the tried-and-true conventions of narrative cinema onto a visual field comprised of the devices (desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone) through which we conduct so much of our professional and personal lives. What’s more, Alice’s bit of customization prompts some speculation about what lies just out of sight in these other stories of protagonists gazing at LED and LCD displays: they too may find some comfort in decorative touches like Alice’s frame, or at least the customary smattering of Post-it notes with illegible passwords. Instead, we have to make do with other evidence of personalization, like the choice of loved one used as screensaver, or a disused Spotify window with a special song on pause.

Sometimes the lack of those signifiers can be telling too, which may be why the sight of the blue sky and verdant green meadows of the Windows XP wallpaper known as “Bliss” has such a strange poignancy when it shows up in Searching (2018), now the subgenre’s most widely seen example. An often potent if ultimately cockamamie thriller starring John Cho as a desperate father who searches his missing daughter’s Facebook friends and Tumblr feed for clues to her whereabouts, Aneesh Chaganty’s debut feature won the Alfred P. Sloan prize at Sundance before slipping into theatres at the end of last summer, staying there for longer than anyone could’ve expected. By grossing approximately 70 times its budget, the film has sparked a potential boom for screenlife, one that is primarily set to benefit Timur Bekmambetov, who had a hand in creating the subgenre’s defining works to date. Along with co-producing Searching and Unfriended: Dark Net (2018)—a sequel to the Bekmambetov-produced 2014 thriller that repurposes the original’s basic premise about online friends who are picked off one by one in a series of grisly and glitch-strewn scenarios—he also directed and co-wrote Profile (2018), a Berlin prizewinner still awaiting North American theatrical release. It is loosely based on In the Skin of a Jihadist, an account by a French journalist (writing under the pen name Anna Erelle) who used a false online identity to communicate with jihadis in Syria and learn firsthand of how they use social media to recruit European youths. That premise yields a sometimes clunky but consistently unnerving study of seduction as related via a succession of online exchanges between Amy (Valene Kane), an alarmingly reckless journalist, and Bilel (Shazad Latif), a fellow Brit now fighting for ISIS.

To Bekmambetov, screenlife is nothing less than an “innovative and unique film language.” While the hype inevitably invites skepticism, the films themselves boast flickers of an arresting vitality: alternately exciting, audacious, frustrating, and unwieldy, this vocabulary may still be in its embryonic stages, but it may rightly come to have a larger presence in the widening category of post-cinematic visual storytelling. And though Bekmambetov’s company’s further claim that Unfriended (which debuted at Montreal’s Fantasia Festival as Cybernatural before its eventual Blumhouse purchase and name change) marked screenlife’s inception point is somewhat over-egging things—the possibilities having been explored in effective ways in such earlier stabs as Joe Swanberg’s segment in the horror omnibus V/H/S (2012), the all-in-Facebook Canadian short Noah (2013), and even a Modern Family episode set on a MacBook that pulls off the conceit with impressive aplomb—no one else preaches the gospel with anything like Bekmambetov’s fervour: he reportedly has 14 more screenlife features in development.

Though it may be hard to accept the notion that a new film language could be devised by the maker of such unwatchable crud as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012), Bekmambetov actually rates as a visual stylist of some inventiveness. For instance, the tricked-out subtitles he affixed to the US release of his Russian-language blockbuster Night Watch (2004) turned one of the medium’s most utilitarian elements into a riot of gonzo graphic design. Likewise, Wanted (2008) was one of its era’s craftiest examples of post-Matrix action cinema. More pertinent to his screenlife proselytizing is Hardcore Henry (2016), which one-upped Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void (2009) when it came to taking the gimmick of first-person POV to a gleefully absurd, avidly abrasive extreme.

Like the sensory barrage delivered by Hardcore Henry—or Neveldine/Taylor’s Gamer (2009), a marginally less obnoxious antecedent—the advances and/or mutations posited by screenlife will be academic catnip for contributors to any future editions of Shane Denson and Julia Leyda’s 2016 anthology Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st Century Film. Surely the likes of Unfriended deserve pride of place in ambitious tomes that grapple with the question of what constitutes the medium for an over-mediated, over-digitized audience that may feel increasingly comfortable with media experiences that, until very recently, seemed impossibly fragmented and chaotic.

Nevertheless, some of these inevitable efforts to celebrate and analyze screenlife as a language will be complicated by its relationships with a variety of storytelling and stylistic modes that have been robust in genre cinema for several decades already. It may be more accurate to view screenlife not as a new language, but a dialect that borrows heavily from the faux-found-footage patois popularized by The Blair Witch Project (1999) and updated for the age of nanny cams and GoPro by Paranormal Activity (2007) and its innumerable sequels and imitators. There are also traces of the ’90s bounty of dystopic tech journey-into-the-machine thrillers inspired by virtual reality’s initial wave, a trend that reached its apotheosis with The Matrix (1999) before spawning more idiosyncratic deviations like Ishii Mamoru’s Avalon (2001) and Kon Satoshi’s Paprika (2006). Add to that mix such prophetic one-offs as Daniel Minahan’s snuff-reality-TV parody Series 7: The Contenders (2001) and the grotty website murder-verse of Marc Evans’ My Little Eye (2002), and you have a good many pieces of screenlife’s vocabulary.

However, Bekmambetov’s recent trio does contain some unique tendencies and tactics that open up promising new applications. Many of these relate to the complex question of which (and whose) screen we’re meant to be watching. While there are protagonists clearly associated with each of the primary screens in view—the father David in Searching, Amy in Profile, the imperilled youngsters in the Unfriended films—there’s often a high degree of ambiguity about their relationships and responses to what unfolds before them. There’s a contradiction at hand, what with the protagonists presented both as figures exercising agency over what we see (even if that mostly means opening windows and programs or engaging in conversations with increasingly worried looks on their faces) and as victims of a sort of paralysis that may be entirely expected of characters who can never click shutdown. That quality of eerie passivity mixed with insatiable hunger is also suggestive of more quotidian media experiences, whether they’re enthusiastic dives into YouTube wormholes or more frantic shifts between whatever stream, site, or feed will produce the next dopamine hit. It’s tempting to feel like they are trapped just as we are trapped, staring into the void like the glassy-eyed visitors of the haunted website in Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Pulse (1999), another tech tale whose cautions we collectively failed to heed. That paralysis also negates the suggestion of physicality and incessant movement more typical of first person-POV exercises like Hardcore Henry or single-take stunt films like Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria (2015): we see the faces in the chat windows and know that someone must be moving the cursors and arrows around, but there’s little evidence these people have bodies.

There’s something compelling about the unabashed flatness and ugliness of these spectacles. The spaces behind the characters onscreen are customarily dark and smudgy, and are rarely intended to be interesting—it’s as if all notions of depth of field have been actively abolished. Little can be divined by the decor choices in the dorm rooms occupied by the soon-to-be victims of the Unfriended films or the increasingly neglected family dwelling in Searching. Daytime exterior shots are so rare that their few occurrences (like when Bilel charms his prey in Profile by joining his fellow ISIS fighters for a spirited game of footie) are jarring. Harshly lit by the light of their displays, the actors almost invariably look as awful as poor, runny-nosed Heather in The Blair Witch Project. Though any scroll through Instagram proves the astuteness of David Foster Wallace’s gag prediction in Infinite Jest about how the advent of videophones will inspire the widespread adoption of digitally enhanced avatars in lieu of our woefully imperfect mugs, screenlife is a reminder that the usual rules of human vanity somehow didn’t extend to FaceTime. And just as VHS tracking lines and Super 8 grain have been incessantly used by faux-found-footage filmmakers as handy signifiers of raw authenticity, we can expect that screenlife cinema will remain steadfastly low-res and full of fake smears and phony, suspense-inducing buffering issues for the foreseeable future.

It’s similarly fascinating to note how all three films contend with issues of temporality and linearity produced by these efforts to simulate the fundamentally different ways we experience the flow of time when our engagement with our screens is rather more interactive than it used to be. The Unfriended pair is the most admirably rigorous in this respect, with narratives that unfold in pseudo-real time on a single, largely fixed screen space. With its five-day timeline, screens go on and off throughout Searching as David wears himself out with his quest; the conceit proves impressively hardy, until Chaganty and his co-writer Sev Ohanian resort to the hoarier use of TV newscast footage as exposition delivery device for much of the film’s latter half. (That the camera often moves over the surface of the protagonist’s screen to highlight areas and details adds another level of dissonance. Searching is also the only one of the three screenlife examples to make conventional use of a musical score, an indulgence that the form otherwise eschews.)

Profile has its own share of stumbles, but one of its solutions to the problem of time is especially sly. While some conversations between Amy and Bilel are presented as if happening in the present, others have a more ambiguous nature, as flagged by Amy’s occasional opening of dated videos from a folder of saved files. The implication is that much of what we witness may be more a matter of her poring over the same clips for the umpteenth time, thereby deepening her ardour for a charmer who clearly shouldn’t be trusted. Given the difficulty of conveying the screenlife protagonist’s interiority in effective ways—most make do with the newly minted cliché of the characters typing out what they intend to say before backspacing over the text to censor themselves, or, in Searching, David’s screen arrow lingering over family photos—there’s a burgeoning strategy here that’s worth developing, one that astutely conveys our devices’ extensive and intrinsic function as the handy storage facilities of our desires, dreams, and memories. That Amy often cuts out the most compromising passages of those conversations before submitting the files to her news editor further reflects the casualness with which we manipulate all this content to fit into the narratives we devise for ourselves.

Of course, it may only be a shock to screenlife characters and not to their spectators to discover that it’s a mistake to believe everything or anything they see on the internet. As angry and despairing as any American movie in recent memory (and one of the more subversive new-release titles to earn an enviably prominent spot on Netflix’s scroll), Cam derives much of its power from its eagerness to demolish the digital era’s most pervasive and seductive fantasies of desire, control, and self-invention. Basing her script on her own experiences as a cam-girl and sex worker, Mazzei understands the charge that she can create by the abrupt juxtapositions of Alice’s girly-girl come-ons and darker appeals to the appetites of viewers who crave the sight of Lola_Lola’s degradation and destruction: this may be why the two mock-suicide sequences are perhaps the most chilling passages in the screenlife canon thus far. And though the film departs further from those tropes in the surreal and horrific final confrontation between Amy and her doppelganger, that screen with the gilded frame becomes the finale’s central device (pun intended), and a key that unlocks the subgenre’s unruliest energies.

The film’s equally disturbing denouement confounds the usual temptation to paint Alice as yet another victim of technology’s fundamentally destructive and corrupting nature, a trope that may very well be eternal. There’s also an echo of a chillingly prescient bit of proto-screenlife that closes Olivier Assayas’ demonlover (2002). Here too is a screen divided into parts: in one window, Connie Nielsen’s ensnared exec waits for the next round of suffering in her porn-site purgatory, while the teenager both passively viewing and actively directing her torment shifts his attention to his science homework in another window. Any dissonance that once existed between the simultaneity of these two frames may hardly register for viewers now.