The most enjoyable movie I’ve seen this summer is in black and white. That probably doesn’t surprise you. But what if I told you it’s not a classic from the Studio Era, but rather a current release from one of the originators of the highly hyped “Mumblecore” movement of D.I.Y. cinematic naturalism?
You probably didn’t peg me as a Mumblecore guy. Neither did I. But Andrew Bujalski‘s COMPUTER CHESS is such an expertly realized movie it may force me to reassess a genre I had previously dismissed as self-involved and overly precious.
Set in the early 1980s and shot on vintage video cameras, COMPUTER CHESS is an intentionally lo-fi indie that deftly employs technology – or lack thereof – as an integral storytelling tool, and manages to evoke an era far better than many bloated blockbusters. And it does all this on a miniscule budget, and with a cast of largely unknown actors, many making their film debuts. The mostly improvised script initially has the feel of a mockumentary (with film critic Gerald Peary acting as “host”) but quickly morphs into a linear narrative, with elements of farce, fantasy and even science fiction. The result is a constantly surprising, idiosyncratic pastiche that feels like a found footage relic.
Backward, bespectacled programmer Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester) and a motley crew of computer nerds gather at a cheesy suburban hotel for the annual convention of the North American Computer Chess Society, where scientists from M.I.T. and Caltech compete against homebrewers to see whose chess-playing program is best. The winner walks away with a $7,500 prize, a golden, Burger King-style crown, and bragging rights until next year. But the geeks are not alone. An “encounter group” led by an African self-help guru (Tishuan Scott) has also taken up residence for the weekend, and the two disparate organizations jockey for meeting space, occasionally overlapping with hilarious consequences.
In one of the film’s absurd high points, socially awkward Peter catches the eye of a touchy feely, middle-aged couple from the encounter group. Smarmy husband Dan (Chris Doubek) tries to pimp out his earthy wife Pauline (Cyndi Williams) to the disinterested dork, and the two engage in what may be the most uncomfortable sales pitch for group sex ever recorded. Had COMPUTER CHESS been a Hollywood film, it would likely have focused on Peter and Shelly (Robin Schwartz), the only girl geek at the chess convention. Instead, it teases you with the unrealized potential of their clumsy interactions in a manner that always feels frustratingly genuine.
I hesitate to tell you what I liked best about COMPUTER CHESS, for fear that I may make it sound like an inside joke for format geeks. But here goes: Director of photography Matthias Grunsky shot the entire film on the Sony AVC-3260, a black and white, vacuum tube camera that perfectly captures the soft, smeary, 1.33 aspect ratio patina of 1970s and ‘80s video. The simple lens and largely automatic camera functions result in frequent over-exposure, auto-irising, “comet tail” trailing in bright light, and the sort of picture drop-outs you’d get when the cable connecting the camera to the external recording deck would get jostled. (Stay with me here, folks.) The audio is often hollow, or too present, with ambiance varying wildly from set-up to set-up, but almost always sounding hyper-realistic. Because it is.
I know, this sounds distracting and gimmicky. It’s not at all. Even if you’ve never operated a video camera in your life, the manner in which the film is produced gets you into a retro mind space that feels almost uncomfortably real. Combined with the excellent production design by Michael Bricker and a collection of Flinstone-sized desktop computers (courtesy of the Goodwill Computer Museum in Austin), dot matrix printers, and overhead projectors, Bujalski creates a truly genuine-feeling analog world.
To be clear, this is an entertaining film, not a perfect one. Like many Mumblecores, there are long, talky stretches with no particular purpose, other than to establish a real life patina. The film hints at some truly fascinating subplots, but doesn’t develop them, and the ending feels like something of a stunt. But, as someone who spent lots of time at conventions in the 1980s, often operating video cameras, I can tell you that COMPUTER CHESS gets a lot of really interesting things right.
Modern moviegoing is inextricably linked to issues of technology: 35 mm vs. digital; the ubiquity of CGI; 3-D and its accompanying surcharges. In the last month I’ve paid more than $20 three different times to see a current release in IMAX 3-D, and left feeling exhausted, underwhelmed, and pickpocketed. COMPUTER CHESS feels like a rebuttal to the soulless perfection that plagues modern moviemaking. More to the point it’s a subversion of it, because the precise depiction of analog imprecision is a big part of what makes this film so memorable.
COMPUTER CHESS left me feeling intellectually excited and consistently entertained – so much so that I went back to see it again. The ticket clerk at Film Forum looked at me like I was weird, which I am. But you don’t have to be to like this movie. I promise.
COMPUTER CHESS is currently in a staggered, nation-wide release from Kino Lorber. A complete schedule is available here.