If the umbrella term “mumblecore” ever had a purpose, those days are long gone. The original group of mumblecore directors — Joe Swanberg, Aaron Katz, the Duplass brothers, Andrew Bujalski — have all gone off in different directions. In some ways, Bujalski’s latest film, “Computer Chess,” has as much as in common with the Chilean film “No” as it does with Swanberg’s forthcoming “Drinking Buddies.”
Set at a computer chess tournament circa 1980, “Computer Chess” was shot with primitive, outdated video cameras. Bujalski shot his first three films on 16mm film; “Computer Chess” is his first work with video. The film shows a nostalgia for the days of VHS, with grainy, black-and-white cinematography contained within a boxy frame.
Yet Bujalski’s film is also an exploration of the roots of our present-day culture, when geeks and computers reign triumphant. The computers in his film seem quaint. Present-day iPads and laptops might now look like the essence of hipness, but in 30 years, they’ll undoubtedly be outdated, and shooting on the RED camera — a popular high-definition digital video model — will be as odd as the boxy cameras wielded by some of Bujalski’s characters.
“Computer Chess” takes place at a hotel. (There are almost no exteriors.) A group of computer programmers are gathered to test their chess software against each other during the course of a weekend. Henderson (Gerald Peary) presides over the event. Papageorge (Myles Paige) is denied a room at the hotel, for some reason. While their programs battle each other, the human drama is Bujalski’s real source of fascination. A gaggle of aging New Age hippies are also staying at the hotel, and inevitably, they wind up interacting with the programmers.
Bujalski makes fine use of an ensemble cast and achieves a sense of drift reminiscent of Robert Altman’s films. As a location, the hotel allows for the feeling that anything is possible, just around the corner. It appears to contain a roomful of cats, some of whom wander around its corridors. Henderson apologizes for this to the allergy-prone among the chess players. The hotel also allows for moments of creepiness — the only woman in the group gets asked by a man if he can stay in her room, a request she not surprisingly turns down. The most mileage Bujalski gets from the location, however, is the way it forces computer programmers and New Age healers to share space.
“Argo” is the only other recent film with such a feel for the unflattering clothes, hairstyles, and eyeglass frames from the Jimmy Carter era. But even if Bujalski decks out his characters in nerdy garb, he doesn’t mock them for this. These days, Hollywood studios make films glamorizing working at Google. The nerds have won. Just look at the past few summers’ procession of superhero movies, which threaten to crowd anything not genre-oriented out of the multiplex. Computers are ubiquitous and not particularly threatening, unlike the bulky monsters of “Computer Chess.” Bujalski reminds us of a time when artificial intelligence seemed like an exotic notion.
Most of the cast of “Computer Chess” consists of non-professionals who’ve never appeared in a film before. Their characters’ awkwardness may be the actors’ very own, but if so, Bujalski knows how to put it to good use. Former Boston Phoenix film critic Peary plays the closest “Computer Chess” comes to an arrogant authority figure, and he turns out to be a natural in the role. Even the New Age hippies are believable.
In its last half hour, “Computer Chess” goes a bit off the rails. It interpolates a color sequence that fits badly into the narrative. A scene in which a character asks his computer questions points to an overall technophobia. Perhaps Bujalski is only comfortable with old technology, as his previous use of 16mm and current use of a video camera from the ‘70s suggest. Rather than settling into a satisfying narrative, “Computer Chess” splinters.
Still, it’s good to see Bujalski growing, rather than making stereotypical mumblecore films about people in their 20s talking about their relationships. This time, he suggests the historical roots of our current cultural malaise, if that’s not putting too much weight on a fundamentally lighthearted film.
COMPUTER CHESS | Directed by Andrew Bujalski | Kino Lorber | Opens Jul. 17 | Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. | filmforum.org
©2013 Community News Group