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Thursday, 16 November 2023

A new movie about WebCam model lives

PVT Chat features writer-director Ben Hozie and actor Peter Vack on expressing masculine fantasies, online sex employment, and digital alienation. PVT Chat, which premiered at the Fantasia Film Festival's online 2020 edition, delves deep into the browser history of deadbeat New Yorker Jack (as performed by Mozart in the Jungle's Peter Vack). The computer screen dominates Jack's whole existence, whether he's generating a paltry income through online gambling or obtaining rare glimmers of human connection via camming sites, with his laptop towering huge like an omnipresent second character. However, when he meets dominatrix and camgirl Scarlett (played by Uncut Gems star Julia Fox), his desire for closeness swiftly turns into obsession and stalking. 

Main Characters

"It would be disingenuous to say this is not a male-gaze film." As we witness Jack masturbate violently and cram cheap, unseasoned noodles into his face while wearing the same soiled shirt for the duration of the film, Hozie's message on the decline of man resonates loud and clear. PVT Chat appears to relish in the debasement of its male protagonist, which explains why Jack elicited such a strong reaction in some viewers - but what about the rest of the audience? "There's always a strange swath of people, including straight women, who say, 'I relate to Jack.'" "I am Jack," Hozie adds; "it's easy to relate to a romantic fixation; I think everyone has experienced that before." The actor who plays Jack, Peter Vack, sees his character's romantic proclivities and final failure as his spiritual driving force and fatal fault. "Even if Jack has a relatively nihilistic worldview, I think he is, on some level, just a hopeless romantic," Vack said. "At times, he thinks he's living a classic love story, even if the irony for the audience is that no, he's not."

We may understand Jack's sexual obsession with Scarlett via his eyes, even if we don't share his masochistic impulses. She's positioned as an irresistibly contemporary femme fatale, aloof, unreachable, and clothed in a full leather catsuit. Hozie is cautious not to suggest that scenes like this balance gendered power relations on television, although she is seemingly in charge, actually directing Jack as her sub. "Just being completely frank, I am a male director, and I was the cameraperson," Hozie says. "Any time I have the camera on my shoulder and I'm looking at Julia, it is the male gaze." But by leaning into that male gaze, we acquire insight into Scarlett's professional persona. "Scarlett is a complete male fantasy at first, but her character created that fantasy." "She has to do that as a sex worker," he says. If you're interested in working in the sex business, you can learn more about webcam modeling jobs here (https://cammodeling.org/).

This illusion is shattered halfway through the film when the film's point of view shifts from Jack's to Scarlett's. "The rug gets pulled out from under the audience, and they realise that Scarlett is a person who has problems of her own, choices of her own," Hozie says. Scarlett is revealed to be just as expected: a genuine person with a mediocre long-term partner and the financial difficulties that come with the territory. In this way, PVT Chat distinguishes itself from antecedents such as Isa Mazzei's CAM and Numa Perrier's Jezebel, which both strive to demystify and destigmatize online sex work by providing the viewpoints of both client and camgirl. 

While PVT Chat is unquestionably sex-positive - Hozie mentions Carol Siegel's Sex Radical Cinema, admitting that one of his goals for the film was to "push the language about what sex can be in a film" - it's unclear whether it's as committed to a sex-worker-positive stance as its predecessors. While Fox's background as a dominatrix influenced casting decisions, and she improvised and drew on some of her personal experience for the part, the film remains deafeningly silent on issues that genuinely impact sex workers. With so many women in Scarlett's line of work experiencing stalking and harassment, it seems odd that the film places us in Jack's shoes, tacitly leading us to sympathise with his behaviour, as he does to Scarlett - even if she does (rightfully or wrongfully) get her revenge later in the film.

"The internet has a utopian quality; it allows you to find your people." However, Hozie believes that the film, particularly this moment, should not be taken too literally; "I was thinking symbolically. Jack stalking Scarlett is similar to continuously checking someone's social media page." And it's within this blurring of "real" and "virtual" that the film finds its thematic footing, with Hozie stressing the connections between Jack's obsessive, gambling-obsessed nature and our larger, social media-obsessed culture. "When someone likes your post, it triggers almost like the feeling of getting a 21 in blackjack," Hozie says. "Something about the gambling rush feels so relevant to life online right now."

It's paradoxical, therefore, that in this digital world of fast gratification, addiction, and fleeting pleasure, where both Jack and Scarlett lie about their identities, a valid connection forms between the two, as proven by a touching last scene in a hotel. While the internet's alienation from reality leads to the protagonists' increasingly irresponsible behaviors, having imagination at their fingertips allows for loosening societal rules. Hozie explains it this way: "There's something utopian about the internet. It allows you to find your people." Indeed, it is because of the digital world that Jack has enough distance from his real-life failures to throw off his limits, open up, and discover some sliver of happiness. Or, in the words of Vack, "It probably isn't happily ever after, but it's two alienated people who do find some solace in one another".

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