Shot in grubby, low-tech 16mm, Gordon Eriksen’s The Love Machine is a fiction film about the Internet, set during what history will deem its primitive phase—the finale of the ’90s. As in the initial stages of all visual and linguistic media, users are driven by unsublimated fantasies. Pornography is the course of least resistance.
The Love Machine depicts a group of mostly twentysomethings who use a university network to create a Web site (The Love Machine) where their secret sexual identities run as wild as their middle-class inhibitions permit. Among the characters are a closeted gay Japanese student and a professor who posts nude photos of a student he seduces. Eriksen’s no-budget movie premiered last month at the L.A. Independent Film Festival, where its unsettling combination of nonglitzy, utilitarian filmmaking, techno-hip subject matter, and humanist progressive politics provoked heated discussions, much laughter, and a generally enthusiastic response. (“A brilliant satire of sexual fantasies on the Internet,” opined indieWIRE.)
Eriksen, whose three previous films (The Big Dis, Scenes From the New World, and Lena’s Dreams) were made in collaboration with his wife, Heather Johnston, has been committed to populist, no-budget filmmaking since he and Johnston graduated from Harvard a decade ago. Their films have a direct connection to their daily lives. The Big Dis was about interracial friendships in the Long Island neighborhood where they grew up. Lena’s Dreams used the actor’s life as a metaphor for their own conflicted feelings about continuing to make indie films. Eriksen went solo on The Love Machine because Johnston became pregnant shortly before production (their daughter, Erika Johnston, is nearly one year old) and because the subject didn’t interest her as much as it did him.
For the last two years—during the making of The Love Machine—Eriksen has been earning a living as a computer consultant. “I’m a Grade B computer wonk,” he says. “I spend about eight hours a day online for my job.” It got him thinking about the difference between how the Internet is covered by the media and what most people’s everyday experience of the Internet is. Out of that contradiction came The Love Machine, in which a decidedly unsympathetic documentary filmmaker callously exposes the real identities of a bunch of Love Machine users.
“Most of the media that covers the Internet have broadband connections and all the latest tools. They have a more pleasant experience than the average person, who has a medium to slow modem and who, when not surfing for porno, uses e-mail and chat rooms. And I think what intrigues most people is that sense of community with people they’d never meet otherwise. But the media doesn’t write about the national character as filtered through the Internet, or about what’s on people’s minds. They write about commerce and big-deal technology—stuff that’s only interesting to about a half a million IS professionals. So in The Love Machine, I have the documentary director jump on this subject because it’s so hyped by the media, and then discover that it’s nothing like what she expected.”
For Eriksen, the problem with the Internet is that it was co-opted by big business right from the beginning (“No one’s offering content that’s compelling enough to make me put up with the ads”) and that it’s being treated largely as a medium of convergence—a new path for TV and movies. “That may be true in the future, but right now, it’s not a good medium for video delivery. But because everyone’s pouring money into that aspect of it, all the special uses of the Internet are pushed aside. So I decided to make a film about the unique way people use the Internet to live out their fantasies and interact with other people in the guise of invented characters.”
Eriksen doesn’t think audiences will sneer at the old-fashioned, 16mm look of the film. “The people who read Wired will probably be bored by the level of technology represented. But most of the people who use the Internet have crudely pasted-up home pages. Technology-wise, they’re on the same level as the film. And all the Web [pages] are based on the real Web sites of people I know, like these Japanese students for whom the East Village is like Paris. They were the original inspiration for the film.”
And why does Eriksen believe that these Internet obsessives will be interested in going out to a movie? “The Internet is boring. Who wants to just sit in front of a computer screen? Movies are like theater. You watch them with a community of people. They’re larger-than-life dreamscapes. There’s nothing better than a good movie.”