Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 27, 2014 5:12 am 
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The internet is not your life

A new little movie is spooky and relevant to our current world. "A young man becomes confused when he begins to suspect that his long-distance girlfriend has been living in the same city as him for the duration of their relationship." This was the premise of the young Zachary Wigon's award-winning short, Someone Else's Heart. For his first feature based on it he has added the key phrase, "he starts out looking for her," which makes it both a feature film and a kind of detective story. Wigon's setting is New York City (he graduated from the NYU film school), with emphasis on the East Village. His method is low-keyed indie vérité. Operating crabwise in his chronology so we don't always know exactly when or where things are happening, he builds overtones of panic and paranoia appropriate to a world where nothing is quite certain or quite real (though we also may be given to know too much, too soon). Cody (John Gallagher Jr.) and Virginia (Kath Lyn Sheil) have met in "Cyberspace," and talked to each other on Skype, making love via webcam. We can't exactly call this "timely," because web romance deceptions go back a couple of decades -- for, as soon as there were "chat rooms," the trickery began. The temptation, it seems, is irresistible, even when it hardly matters. Even as we walk down the street we hear people beside us on their cell phones telling their interlocutor they're somewhere they aren't. Wigon has some missteps -- his finale is self indulgent and blurry -- but he gets at something pretty basic about how the internet can warp lives.

The main actors and the setting contribute to The Heart Machine's success. Gallagher, one of the principals of TV's "The Newsroom," is sweet, open, also sexy and mercurial. He gives this role his quiet all, and we can believe this happening to him. Kate Lyn Sheil is delicate, pretty, and subtle. She does swift, tricky things with her eyes that could be straightforward or devious, we can't tell. An older, non-cybrer-romancer person could still wonder: how the hell could these two people get involved in what seems to be a serious romance when they never actually touch, when they're both attractive people with access to real, touchable others? But why not? It's an available medium. It's there. It has its charms, its added possibilities. The internet is our life -- though it's also actually not -- and yet still after all this, another world, a mystery, a thrill of possibility, the unknown. There's also the sheer appeal and excitement of risk-taking for young people who want excitement and can deal with danger, or think they can. (Ultimately they can't.) The East Village is a hotbed of hip, attractive young people looking for love and sex, ideally fertile ground for Wigon's story. This could happen here, and lots more.

Heart Machine (not a perfect title, though more descriptive than Her) would be strained or monotonous if it were chock-full of the Skype sessions, where, mostly, we see Cody in his apartment and Virginia on his laptop screen, which makes for visually drab and uninteresting scenes. But the Skype stuff is used sparingly. And the detective story takes us outside when Cody, using sensory clues he's analyzed from his taped talks with Virginia, now convinced she's not in another country as she claims, tracks around the East Village and invades the life of a local barista she may have been with once; and, desperate and obsessive now, begins picking up girls he finds online who resemble or or may be connected with her, and variously breaking privacy rules using online techniques. We also follow Virginia into her own dating using the web meet-up site Blendr, and her job at a library. And there's the symbolically central (a bit overworked?) moment when Cody sees Virginia's "doppelganger" on a subway. None of these would be interesting enough except for Gallagher's appeal, and Cody's anxiety -- and Virginia's siren slipperiness. (This is a male view of a devious female temptress; but she gets to have her brief final say.) The closer he comes to finding out the truth the less he wants to confront it, making for a a tension both pleasing and excruciating. (The most dangerous places are close by, and in our own hearts.) The mystery is not what the truth is but how he will deal with it and what will happen. Along the way as the chase grows closer to the goal there are some great "aha!" moments, like when Cody finds some read candy wrappers in a trash can. The sheer roughness of the filmmaking gives such details edge.

In the end, though the explanation of Virginia's behavior is obvious, it makes perfectly good sense. Is this story contemporary or universal? Like any good story, it's both. There has always been intimacy between people who knew nothing about each other and got burned, but the internet makes this happen in lots of new ways, some of which Wigon captures neatly.

The Heart Machine, 85 mins., debuted at SXSW (Austin) and has shown at other mostly small festivals. Its US theatrical debut was 24 October 2014. Screened for the review at Cinema Village, NYC.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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