Local Filmmaker Explores Digital Romance

I am delighted to be blogging (every 8th and 25th of the month) about film for Art for Progress. The organization/site’s dual mission – supporting emerging artists and arts education – is an admirable one, especially given the stratospheric real estate prices in New York and other cities that have traditionally incubated arts scenes, and the deep cuts in pubic school arts education. The ever-escalating mainstream media coverage of celebrity-driven — as opposed to talent-driven — arts and entertainment doesn’t help the current climate. Fortunately, blogs such as this exist!

In the past 20-or-so years of writing about movies for a variety of print and digital outlets, I’ve covered everything from major Hollywood releases to little-heralded films, interviewed (i.e., was allotted 15 phone minutes with) major movie stars and had long, insightful conversations with extremely independent filmmakers. It’s all been good, but I especially relish writing about lesser-known films and their creators; it’s always satisfying to encounter a fresh cinematic voice and easy to get caught up in the excitement of the filmmakers themselves. That’s mainly the stuff I plan to cover here.

Courtesy of FilmBuff

Courtesy of FilmBuff

The Heart Machine, which received a lot of positive attention at this year’s SXSW Festival, is the first feature from writer/director Zachary Wigon, who used Kickstarter to help fund it. A 2008 graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Wigon has a background in film journalism. While at school he started a cinema studies magazine and later contributed to Indiewire and Filmmaker magazine; he still writes for the Village Voice.

Though many have compared The Heart Machine to 2010’s Catfish — another film about a questionable online romance — The Heart Machine is a moodier, more atmospheric work, with an underlying theme about modern-day relationships and the digital environment that has transformed both the way they form and how they play out (or don’t).

John Gallagher Jr. (Cody) and Kate Lyn Sheil (Virginia) both fine, naturalistic actors — play a couple who meet via OkCupid and conduct what seems like an ideal long-distance relationship via Skype; he’s in Brooklyn; she’s in Berlin. When Cody hears police sirens on her end that sound suspiciously American, he begins what becomes near-obsessive research (much of it online) to figure out whether she’s messing with him and why. As his suspicions mount, he plays detective and puts himself into increasingly risky situations, all the while keeping up the Skype relationship with Virginia. Alternately, there are scenes from her point of view, which provide a nice counterpoint without decreasing the film’s tension.

Both Cody and Virginia use various online tools (Gmail, Facebook, Blendr, Craigslist, Twitter), to get what they need in The Heart Machine. Though these are common conveniences for most of us, when presented onscreen en masse they’re a somewhat startling reminder of how casually dependent we’ve become on digital devices and how they’ve altered our lives as well as those of the film’s protagonists.

Rob Leitzell’s cinematography is dark, straightforward and compelling; his nicely-composed shots of familiar New York spaces — sidewalks, building facades, parks, subways and various interiors — provide an additional layer of engagement for city dwellers who can identify, and identify with, these locations. All in all, it’s a solid debut from a promising filmmaker.

The Heart Machine (Pacemaker Films, FilmBuff) is currently playing at Cinema Village, 22 E. 12th Street, Manhattan.

Also of note: Revenge of the Mekons, a documentary by Joe Angio about the venerable British punk band, playing at Film Forum, Oct. 29 through Nov. 4; Margaret Mead Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History through Sunday; Other Israel Film Festival at various venues around town, Nov. 6 through 13.

Marina Zogbi