Full disclosure: I think I have a serious problem with men. Granted that I’m a transwoman with my worldview skewed somewhat accordingly, but I’m not necessarily talking about men in real life. “Men”, as a conglomerate, sure, they’re a problem, but individual men can be pretty interesting. Why the long diatribe in defense of men? Because I’m worried about how many male characters in films become distracting due to how intolerable they are, especially when the film calls us to sympathize with them. I spoke a little about this yesterday in discussing Wild Canaries, where a 36-year-old guy’s continuous lack of faith in his girlfriend and apathy to the events around him become somewhat irredeemable, even though they’re meant to be redeemed.
This certainly isn’t to suggest men rubbed clean of flaws. Jake Lacy’s extraordinarily nice guy in Obvious Child is a classy, and not dimensionless, either, example of that, but when I think of a quintessentially flawed, but still sympathetic lead male, my mind often goes to the photographer in Blow-Up. While lording over his women subjects [models] with a particularly hetero-masculine confidence, his obsession with the image and crisis of relating to reality become of more central significance. In Zachary Wigon’s The Heart Machine (C+), John Gallagher plays a man not totally dissimilar in his obsession with his internet girlfriend, who he believes isn’t studying in Berlin, but is in New York. I mean, he’s right, but his validation shouldn’t necessarily imply vindication in his actions throughout the film.
Gallagher plays Codi, a New York resident whom we never see at his job and we never see with any friends or family, so we might as well imply he has none. He’s been in an online relationship with Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil) for months, and one that seems nice enough, if devoid of a crucial factor of intimacy. Frustrated with the distance between them, he’s formed an obsession around finding her in New York, a goal to which he spends most of the film investigating. Along the way he has occasional run-ins with vague people he thinks she might know, but finds himself weirdly manipulating the company they’re providing. In this way Codi becomes less of a person than an obstinate drive, focused more on the image of a girl than the personal dimensions of the girl herself. He’s the overly possessive boyfriend of the one future, now present.
It certainly speaks to how we build sometimes healthier relationships online than in real life, often with even less than Skype to go on – both of my stays at NYFF have seen me shying nervously away from contact with other online critics for fear that I’m even less a person in life than a person online – but it’s pretty thin on how deep it’s willing to plumb that unique relationship. We never get close to Codi, but we do get a sense of intimacy with Virginia from seeing her outside the Skype space, where she allows her sexuality to run free without fear of emotional damage, but without the intimacy of deeper human connection. As the film closes in on a meeting of the two, opportunities for tackling how these two interact in real life quickly diminish, and the conclusion becomes a somewhat hollow thing consequently. That’s aside from a closing poem that suggests Virginia has a brighter future in writing than Codi does in… seriously, what does he even do?
Admittedly Codi isn’t quite as overtly insane as the main male presence of Ellie Lumme (B+), AV Club critic and former At the Movies co-host Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s psychological drama. I hesitate in calling Stephen Cone’s Ned a character because that might imply he’s human, which indeed he may not be. Once envisioned as an overtly supernatural film – Vishnevetsky calling it “a ghost film without a ghost” led to much intellectual theorizing before he revealed the original cut actually involved one – the remnants of that story still linger. Title protagonist Ellie Lumme (Allison Torem), an intentionally disinterested, above-it-all girl, lives Molly (Mallory Nees), who continuously practices supernatural readings. What were once necessary decisions of the plot become screwball quriks for their characters, and yet the film becomes something even more haunting, though in a decidedly different way.
Early on Ellie befriend Cone’s Ned, an older man just as disinterested in those around him, if not even more so. It’s a thinly veiled way of saying he’s a complete sociopath, but even more upsetting is that he’s routinely allowed to be that. As Ellie continuously turns down his offputting advances towards her, he becomes increasingly more hostile towards her, becoming less of a tormenter than an ever-present weight on her psyche. To reveal more might unravel all there is to tell in this 42-minute film, which leaves room to be fleshed out while remaining packed with ideas about genuine identity and the inhuman facades we put up to impress or degrade others.
That’s not a quality merely exclusive to Ned, whose brand of self-indulgent cynicism has unsettlingly become a norm of coolness in today’s young adults. Flashes of real life murderer and misogynist Elliot Rodgers come to mind in Cone’s deadpan, and he gets plenty of scenes to build out that kind of monster, yet remains just vague enough to be any real world monster. He nonetheless reveals a sense of performance Ellie’s own actions, which makes her genuine meltdown a refreshingly addition of humility to her character, aided much by Molly’s supernaturally tinged concerns for her. If the pervasive creepiness of men in films where they’re not meant to be so is getting to me, it’s at least satisfying to see that creepiness be intentionally leveraged in such a way as this.