Computer Chess maintains filmmaker Andrew Bujalski's distance from the mainstream even as it represents a major departure from his previous work.
On paper, the early work of director Andrew Bujalski looks like the textbook definition of mumblecore -- or it would, if mumblecore could be so clearly defined. Less a genre than a loose grouping of plot-averse, low budget, naturalistic films about 20somethings, mumblecore emerged sometime in the early aughts, in the work of artists like Bujalski, along with Joe Swanberg, Lynn Shelton, and Mark and Jay Duplass.
Bujalski's films Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2003) helped to establish the movement's shaggy, lo-fi aesthetic, and since then, many mumblecore filmmakers have differentiated themselves from one another. While the Duplass brothers and Shelton have inched closer to the mainstream, working with Jonah Hill, Jason Segel, Rosemary DeWitt, and Ellen Page, and Swanberg has been exceptionally productive, directing well over a dozen features, including this August's Drinking Buddies, Bujalski has remained closer to the mumblecore ideal, which is to say, apart from the conventional movie business. His new film, Computer Chess, maintains this distance even as it represents a major departure from his previous work.
Set in the early '80s, Computer Chess follows a weekend chess tournament at an unnamed and vaguely shabby hotel. The participants are programmers, working on big, boxy computers to design original software to pit against other software in chess matches. The movie follows a little bit of the game play, as well as a few coding bugs and competition glitches, but it seems more interested in the downtime, as various programmers wander around the hotel, engage in dorm-style debates, and gawk not too surreptitiously at Shelly (Robin Schwartz), the one female programmer among them.
In a more traditional version of this story, Peter (Patrick Riester), a young student accompanying his mentor to the tournament, would probably emerge as the hero. But Computer Chess aims to capture a moment before the digital and pro-nerd revolutions, when kids like Peter were definitively comfortable with human interaction, when community was just beginning to be redefined online.
To enhance the realism of this moment, Bujalski casts actors who look like they could be early '80s programmers. The most recognizable member of the cast is an aggrieved-looking Wiley Wiggins, an actor known primarily (and marginally) for his roles in the Dazed and Confused and Waking Life ensembles. Yet the other faces look familiar too, not because they belong to movie stars, but rather, because they look like people you might have seen in this time and place.
One of the more cocksure nerds, Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige), stands out because he acts more like a big-shot hustler than a professor or a lab worker: he turns up at the hotel without a reservation, asking everyone if he can crash on their floors (his first target, of course, is poor Shelly). At the same time, Papageorge also blends in with the quieter and more awkward characters, mainly because Paige isn't particularly good in the movie; his line readings have a stilted amateurishness and when he's on screen, the movie feels like the public-access material it aesthetically resembles.
Those aesthetics, indeed, are a major component of Computer Chess. Bujalski, who has favored analog media like 16mm film in the past, has gone digital in the lowest-fi manner possible, shooting the movie on a tube-based Sony video camera, technology that originated in 1968. Its soft black-and-white images are both nostalgic and new, like real life filtered through fuzz. The camera motion is so readable it ceases to offer illusion: clearly, we are watching something that has been recorded.
Some reviewers have compared Computer Chess to David Lynch's work (Eraserhead was shot in black and white; Inland Empire on digital video) and Harmony Korine (whose Trash Humpers was shot on VHS). But despite the occasional forays into damaged-tape weirdness and intentional technical raggedness, Bujalski's lo-fi digressions more bring to mind Richard Linklater, and not just because of Wiggins. Linklater's portraits of Texas in Slacker and Dazed and Confused eschew plot in favor of meandering characters and local textures, just as many of those early mumblecore movies do. Bujalski has a similar affection for not just his characters, but also their backgrounds. Some wonderful moments seem at once fleeting and timeless, like the shot of Shelly and Peter pushing a bulky computer down the hotel hall in the dead of night, on their way to run some diagnostics.
The scene recalls the fumbling relationships of Bujalski's earlier films, but Computer Chess is also blearier than many mumblecore efforts. The film conjures small ironies (a presentation about the awesome powers of computing rendered via low-tech overhead projector) and smart contrasts (a new age-y retreat bumps up against the programmers' gathering) with such offhandedness that they feel observed rather than staged. As a portrait of a time and place, Computer Chess is unlike Bujalski's other films, as well as almost any movie in release at the moment.