The first moments of The Heart Machine are a dream, an abstract impression of movement and shifting light, laced with muted sounds like music from next door. Then the filter pops off, the thumping music rushes in, and we’re thrust into the life of Cody, checking his phone in a loud club, ignoring the Millennial mating ritual happening around him. In Zachary Wigon’s film, which premiered at SXSW over the weekend, Cody suspects that his online girlfriend is not, as she claims, in Berlin, but here in New York, perhaps in the East Village as he pines for her from Bushwick.
The film is a whodonit of motive — why would she lie? — and a deft exploration of character, spelunking with two people exposing weak points and un-proud moments. The story hinges on the artifice that both enables and threatens the relationship — socialization via computer. The film, which screens again Thursday at 4:30 p.m. at The Long Center‘s Rollins Theatre, will resonate both with Millennials, raised on such devices and perhaps anxious for more “meatspace” connection, and certainly with Gen Xers, who have watched their world become digitized and increasingly alienated. Wigon, who also writes film criticism for the Village Voice, talks about how modern technology is capable of “facilitating and inhibiting connection simultaneously.”
In order for the film to work it was so crucial that the connection between the characters and the love that the characters feel for each other — it was crucial that that came across in the scenes that they’re on Skype. If we had shot the Skype scenes where they weren’t on same set, and I wasn’t able to talk with both of them and let them feel out the dynamics of the scene in longer takes, it think … the warmth that’s being passed back and forth between the two characters might have gotten compromised.
One of the big visual influences on the film are two movies by Antonio Campos, Afterschool and Simon Killer. Simon Killer has some really fantastic shots where one character is the focus of the frame, and another character is, in one degree or another, out of frame. Maybe there’s a body part in frame, maybe they’re mostly in frame but you can’t see their face. I thought it was so wonderfully done. And there was something about the tension that I realized it conveyed in seeing shots composed that way that I wanted to carry it across to this film. Whether [my] film is categorized as a drama or a mystery or a thriller, I wanted the tension of a thriller to carry through in every scene.
Plotwise, you show your hand early on, and the story isn’t about whether or not she’s lying, but why she’s lying. It’s a “whodunit” of motive. Is that more thrilling, since it delves deeper into character?
A whodunit about motive… that’s really well put. That’s exactly what it is. It’s a mystery, and it’s less about what happens and more about why it happens. We didn’t want the film to be this thing where Virginia is this mystery fantasy thing that you’re trying to figure out from a distance and you’re only seeing through his eyes. I wanted the film to be as much about trying to figure her out — as she tries to figure herself out — as it is about him trying to figure her out.
I spoke to Fort Tilden’s directors about Millennials — who Charles Rogers thinks are defined as those who grew up not knowing life without the internet. At 27, you’re right on the edge and you’re investigating that factor head-on.
I consider myself privileged. I’m old enough to remember a time when socializing occurred before the internet was the dominant force, and I’m young enough to have an intuitive understanding and perspective of the way it effects how we socialize.
The Heart Machine is about trying to explore that counterintuitive nature of how the internet and other contemporary tools change the way we socialize, in a very paradoxical and very strange manner. Where they seem to be both facilitating and inhibiting connection simultaneously.
I think “backlash” seems like a strong word. But I think as younger folks—digital natives, people who have grown knowing nothing other than this way of socializing — as they get a little older, I think there will be an evolving way of thinking about how we interact with people.
I’m 27, the majority of my friends are roughly that age or older. But I’m thinking of the intern I had this summer, who is 19 or 20, who doesn’t have a Facebook profile.
When I asked him why, he said that it was too all-consuming. It was being used too often. The idea of the younger going off Facebook is interesting. It makes me think that there’s some kind of third space that is yet to be explored.
The decision to put Cody in Bushwick was simply because most people I know who are roughly my age making the sort of money that he’s making, it seems likely that he would be living in that neighborhood… There’s an energy to it, there’s a spark to it, and also if you find the right spot there’s a desolation to it.
One of the crucial things about shooting in Bushwick and in the East Village — it’s a film about young people living in New York trying to figure it out. And I do think that it’s very much a New York film, insofar as it’s about trying to figure out who you are and what you’re doing and trying to make some sort of connection with another person in a city filled with millions of people who are very very visibly and extrovertedly doing their own thing and don’t really care about you one way or another.
It’s interesting that you used to write for The House Next Door, a blog originally started by Matt Zoller Seitz, another critic-slash-filmmaker. The French New Wave notwithstanding, it seems difficult to be successful as both filmmaker and critic. Do you think there’s a conflict of interest? Are you one above the other?
I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker. I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker since I was 11 years old. I love writing film criticism. I got into it because when I was at NYU in the film production program, I thought it was strange that there was no cinema studies publication at the school, so I created one.
I published film reviews, and Keith Uhlich, who was managing editor of the House Next Door. Keith asked me to write for the House Next Door, which was how I got my foot in the door with film criticism.
I think it’s the opposite of a conflict of interest. One informs the other. When you are forced to think of films in the way you have to when you’re a film critic, it aids in thinking about the medium and thinking about the formal aspect of filmmaking, which hopefully has made me improve over the years as a filmmaker. I do consider myself primarily a filmmaker.
Bradley Spinelli (@13_Spinelli) is the author of “Killing Williamsburg.”