Movies We Like
American independent cinema has been ghettoized and marketed into a certain type of cinema. Popular types of independent films include low budget digital cinematography about post-collegiate confusion or Indiewood films about “quirky” relationships and situations involving beautiful losers. It's a sea of films that has flooded festivals like SXSW or Sundance that leave great works of independent cinema behind in the dust. So it’s a grand pleasure to have Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess emerge out of Sundance, a film that openly breaks these stereotypes and proves that American independent cinema can be exciting, experimental and even fun.
Taking place sometime in the late '70s or early '80s, several groups of professional, amateur and student programmers meet at a motel to compete in a computer chess tournament where computers are pitted directly against one another to see which program has the most advanced AI. But this is almost just an excuse (a mundane MacGuffin?) for a film that takes leaps into computer philosophy, surrealism and hippie hedonism. Bujalski steps out of his comfort zone of painful, singular character based comedies shot on 16mm with a pastiche shot on low-grade video on a Sony AVC3260 (never a gimmick, but an integral part of the aesthetic and feel). Lesser filmmakers would lament and moan about the use of such an anti-cinematic camera and look, but Bujalski and his excellent regular cinematographer Matthias Grunsky revel in it with jump cuts, bad split screen, video errors, and unsynced sound and light that smears like old live television. The first minute or two of Computer Chess start as a faux-documentary with programmers speaking into mics directly into the camera about why they want to win the championship. Jump cut to an audience preparing to sit down in an auditorium while the camera dollies across the audience--until it crashes too hard into the end of a dolly track, causing another jump cut to static. If you were watching this on an old CRT-TV, you’d probably be provoked to slap the TV straight a few times.
This is the closest American cinema has gotten to Robert Altman since Altman passed away, with its love and attention to each character of Computer Chess’ large cast. Featuring non-actors, actual programmers and one “star” (Dazed and Confused’s Wiley Wiggins, himself an amateur programmer), the cast wears large glasses, tacky shirts, odd haircuts and uses outmoded computers and Portapaks. What could easily lead specifically to post-modern, ironic nerd chic is just made real with Bujalski’s humanism and Madison Fisk’s (production designer extraordinaire Jack Fisk’s daughter) era perfect design and attention to detail. It’s as close as cinema has gotten to looking like photos of your parents when they first got married. When the most closely followed character, Peter (Patrick Rieste), encounters a pair of hippie swingers, they look like sad and out-of-touch relics of a non-digital era where opening your mind wasn’t with computers but with drugs and sex. They’re never mocked or played for just laughs, but they come off like actual casualties of the post '60s death of innocent love and they look the part. Often it feels like to be taken seriously as a cinematic artist, you have to soak your work in cynicism, but Bujalski genuinely loves all his characters and seems to make each one--no matter how insignificant the role--feel like a real person as opposed to a caricature.
But the most gratifying aspect of Computer Chess is seeing what rewards it offers through its loose narrative and wide scope, especially on multiple viewings. Is it a comedy? A study on pre-Internet computer relations? Is advanced programming leading the way to computers ruling us all? Is Peter borderline autistic and doesn’t he know that Shelly (Robin Schwartz) probably has a crush on him? And it’s guaranteed to polarize audiences without ever being grotesque or offensive. That alone is exciting and leaves hope for the future of American cinema.