Computer Chess is an entirely unique, completely unexpected film, and whilst I’m super happy you’re here, I would strongly urge you to watch it before reading any further so as not to spoil any of its surprises!
Andrew Bujalski is, to the few people who actually have heard of him, famous for his mostly improvised, painfully realistic, artlessly artless depictions of the lives of young hip people as they go through perfectly ordinary, life-sized problems – his first film, Funny Ha-Ha, was one of the very first films of the “mumblecore” movement and went a long way to legitimise that style of filmmaking as something that could express the kinds of stories they were telling in a new way. He and his peers, filmmakers that have gone on to make films on a much larger budget like Joe Swanberg, the Duplass Brothers and Lynn Shelton, found a form that perfectly expressed the lives in which they lived: shaggy, low-budget, and with meandering, barely-there focus. Not all mumblecore films worked, but all of Bujalski’s films did, due to his superior understanding of his characters and their interpersonal relationships which kept you invested even when the conversations were mundane due to the sheer recognizability of the types of people he wrote about.
Judging by the trailer for Computer Chess, one would be tempted to assume that he’s applying the style he’s worked with previous into a new setting (a computer chess tournament in the late 70s) and more sophisticated visual style, but its clear from about the halfway mark that it is an entirely different, much stranger beast. As Computer Chess builds it becomes progessively more and more batshit until it feels more reminiscent of experimental horror works like Eraserhead and Videodrome. Shot mostly in black-and-white on an old Sony AVC-3260 video camera (and utilising the camera’s inability to handle bright lights to sinister, disorienting effect) the film is pitch-perfect in its evocation of a time and place, at least until sets its mind to completely dismantling any ideas of what on earth this film might be.
This is explicit in the direction that its core plot takes (it revolves around what turns out to be a sentient, possibly demonic computer) and in a short-lived colour freakout that verges on psychedelic, but the uneasy weirdness eventually creeps into every inch of the film’s milieu until the film becomes a dizzying, uneasy ride. It’s a grand statement from a filmmaker that has thus-far made a point of trading in small, ordinary statements, and it’s absolutely thrilling to see a filmmaker that one could always sense was holding back unleashing such a uniquely confounding vision.
For all its peculiarity, though, Bujalski’s talent in character writing is still remarkably strong. His ability to make the mundane compelling hits new heights in an early conference scene in which his characters discuss computer programming and the possibility of computers out-thinking human beings in the near future. It’s full of now-obsolete, inside-baseball jargon, but remains compelling because the characters speaking it are such an entertainingly oddball bunch. Bujalski has nailed nerd types with a realism that most filmmakers aren’t even aware of, capturing not only the charming awkwardness of some, but also the smug arrogance and clueless sexual aggressiveness that so often manifests in people who has obsessively devoted their lives to a world that is never going to get them laid. The performances are uniformly pitch-perfect, too, though special mention must be given to Robin Schwartz who plays the only woman at tournament with a shyness that never sacrifices her intelligence and integrity as she fights off skeezy advances, and Cyndi Williams as the new-age hippy (who is part of a holistic therapy group sharing the hotel with the tournament) who propositions the film’s hero Peter (Patrick Reister) to a threesome and absolutely nails her big scene.
This is the first film I’ve seen from this year’s London Film Festival, and if anything touches the uniqueness and newness of Computer Chess then this year’s festival is going to be a big one. Rather excitingly, there are a whole host of films this year that I expect to rival it; nonetheless, what we have here is nothing short of one of the most exciting new voices in American cinema.
Please keep checking back here for more reviews from the festival over the coming few weeks, I’m going to try and write about as many as possible!