There is no doubt technology has brought us closer together: the telegram, the telephone, skype. SXSW featured a number of films this year about how the pace of digital love has outrun our own mastery of the emotion. 10000 KM showed a couple’s year apart as a series of skype conversations, with their time together on either end. It was both fascinating and heartbreaking. CREEP and OPEN WINDOWS both looked at the darker side of the Internet, and the way we can control just exactly what others see about us. THE HEART MACHINE combines both of those issues into a captivating romantic mystery, a story about finding someone in this digital chaos and then trying to locate them in the real world as well.

Featuring the talented and attractive John Gallagher Jr. and Kate Lyn Sheil, Zachary Wigon’s film captures the modern dilemma facing everyone in search of love in a world crammed full of technology: despite all these ‘tools’ to find each other, we are actually less intimate and less able to have an actual conversation with each other. I had a chance to interview Wigon after SXSW and we spoke at length about the nature of the contemporary pursuit of passion. “There are all sorts of internet dating sites where you answer a lot of questions and then they sort of tell you who your matches are based on this formula that they came up with,” Wigon says “but if what you are saying is that an intimate connection can be reduced to an algorithm, there is something about that which seems unsettling and inhuman to me.” In The Heart Machine, Cody and Virginia’s entire relationship exists through digital portals – although they are both from New York, Virginia meets him just as she has started a six-month study abroad program in Berlin. Or so she says.

Cody becomes obsessed with clues in what she says and how her apartment looks to lead him to believe that she is actually still in New York and has been lying to him the whole time. All he knows about her is what comes through his laptop. The title of the film comes from a poem by a close friend of Wigon’s, Alex Haber. “The poem spoke to some of the things I was interested in exploring,” he says, that “love and intimacy is something that can be sort of metered out in a pragmatic, mechanical sort of fashion.” In the case of the film, the ‘Heart Machine’ may be Cody’s laptop, which he uses both to communicate with Virginia and also to research whether or not she is a fraud. Technology is really neutral, it is how we use it that colors our perception of the world. This is just as true with love as any other sort of research that can be done online. “It certainly facilitates connections of a certain kind easier,” Wigon acknowledges “but it also redefines the terms of what we consider to be a valid connection between people and what we consider to be important in establishing intimacy between two people.”

In THE HEART MACHINE, despite being drawn together instantly online, Cody and Virginia are horribly incapable of discovering or even facing intimacy face-to-face. In Virginia this takes the form of a number of ill-conceived forays into digital hook-ups. “So much of her story is about her trying to figure out how to conduct her own life in New York,” says Wigon, “through compartmentalization and technology, the most efficient way that she can conduct her affairs in a way that’s pleasing to her.” But she never finds what she is looking for, and keeps returning to love at a distance, with Cody on skype. The one exception to this is a writer that she meets through her work, someone to whom she seems to actually be able to have a conversation. “I wanted to try to show her searching for some sort of guidance or beacon from some kind of exterior source,” explains Wigon, “and she gets a certain sort of guidance but of course as that scene goes on you realize that the guidance is really just an attempted, rather sleazy seduction in disguise.”

Cody is no better. Many viewers might be frustrated with his relentless pursuit of the truth but yet, his complete and utter failure to confront Virginia. Wigon says: “all he really would have to do to avoid all this crazy stuff that he gets involved with is just ask her… but he can’t, it’s a conversation that is too difficult and requiring too much empathy for him to handle and so he takes this circuitous route where instead of being intimate with one person you’re sort of intimate with the technological devices of many people – his real attempt to try to ascertain information comes from technology as opposed to interacting with another human being.” One of the best sequences of the film involves Cody going through Virginia’s facebook pictures, looking at tags and then seeking out one of the girls tagged, meeting her, getting back to her apartment, only to try to search her computer and phone for a link to Virginia.

Yet when he finally tracks down her apartment, he is frozen in fear. “I think that he’s been sort of of two minds in conducting his search,” says Wigon “he wants to know but he also wants to preserve the fantasy. He feels compelled to try to figure out what’s going on with her, at the same time he’s in love with her.” For me, it’s sort of the modern day equivalent of all the letter writing in a Jane Austen novel, the inability to deal with these emotions publically. But what’s interesting is that came from propriety, and the sensibilities of the age of restraint. We now live in a society that encourages us to express every moment, every thought, share every detail about our inner soul to anyone, and they live forever, just a few clicks away. Is there any difference any more between the inner and outer self? It’s an enthralling conflict, and drives the narrative of THE HEART MACHINE.

Zachary Wigon’s film never lets up either. It could easily have been a quirky indie comedy about the trials of dating, but instead it’s more of a sleek, streamlined mystery, with the slow burn of film noir. “I wanted to have almost zero exposition, have everything come through the action of the storytelling,” says Wigon. There are other characters in the film, but very few of them have any effect on the actions of the leads. It’s a selfish world. “You don’t really see the characters looking out for each other,” admits Wigon. And if Cody’s way of dealing with his situation becomes a little stalkerish and creepy, it may just be that, despite all the modern ‘tools’ he has in his arsenal, he is missing one basic one, just as Virginia is as well, trust. It seems odd that this world of over-sharing would facilitate trust issues but instead of being windows into each other, all this technology is really more of a façade, a screen that can be painted however we want, and we find ourselves more distant than ever. If Virginia had just trusted Cody with the truth or if Cody had just trusted that they could have made it work, there would have been no film. But that’s not the world we live in anymore.

It makes me glad I don’t have to date anymore. And that we have a sharp and unrestrained like Zachary Wigon to encapsulate our times so perfectly.

THE HEART MACHINE continues its festival run at the Sarasota Film Festival, Wednesday April 9th and Saturday April 12th. More information is available here: http://bit.ly/1lGhITe



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