Director: Andrew Bujalski
Screenplay: Andrew Bujalski
Starring: Patrick Riester, Wiley Wiggins, Myles Paige, Robin Schwartz, Gerald Peary
Producers: Houston King, Alex Lipschultz
Running Time: 92 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
The 'mumblecore' genre appeared around the turn of the 21st century. It was coined to describe the work of writers and directors such as the Duplass brothers and Joe Swanberg who make lo-fi American indie films. In essence, a mumblecore film is, to quote the fountain of all lazily acquired 'knowledge' Wikipedia, “characterized by low budget production values and amateur actors, heavily focused on naturalistic dialog”. To me, this style could be attributed to a number of films produced since the 60's (or even John Cassavetes' Shadows back in 1959), yet it seems curiously attached to this more recent collection of independent films. I guess another characteristic which unites them over some of the earlier films would be their tendency to focus on the slackers and other more subdued outcasts from society.
Andrew Bujalski is thought to have brought us the first 'true' mumblecore film with Funny Ha Ha back in 2002 and after 11 years of quietly acclaimed low-key releases he's made it onto Eureka's Masters of Cinema label with his latest film Computer Chess. The prestigious home entertainment distributor doesn't often add new releases to their roster, but now and again they'll pick out something they feel deserves their world renowned spit and polish treatment.
Computer Chess is an unusual, mildly comic look at the world of computer chess programming back in the early 1980's. Set during an annual competition to find a program that can beat a human chess master, the film drifts among the contenders as they struggle to victory in a low rate hotel they share with a touchy feely 'encounters' group. The film focusses largely on Bishton (Patrick Riester), a young programmer whose system is glitchy, seemingly wanting to commit chess suicide, and Papageorge (Myles Paige) a less talented but outspoken entrant who's having problems with his room booking at the hotel.
I don't fully know how to express my feelings about the film. It's a very odd experience. Shot with old black and white analogue video equipment which was originally used for public access TV back in the 70's and 80's, Computer Chess looks like a relic from the time. It also incorporates mockumentary elements although it doesn't stick to this approach regularly. As well as using quite naturally performed and presented sequences as you'd expect from a mumblecore film, this also delves quite regularly into the surreal and abstract. Cats keep appearing out of nowhere, computers seem to develop a life of their own and the editing and shooting style occasionally breaks out into dream like experimentation (in an old fashioned style of course).
It's that last phrase that sums it up really. As an interview with Bujalski included in the set confirms, the film is more of an experiment than anything else. He didn't write a script like he usually would, instead showing up to the shoot with an 8 page treatment and a whole lot of notes. As such, the film is full of ideas, but feels quite aimless. I kind of expected that from this though so it didn't bother me too much even if it meant the pace was pretty languid. The use of such forgotten tech to make the film and the bizarre nature of everything were enough to keep me on board, even though I really didn't know what to make of much of it.
Not everything works either, as you might guess. In using actual computer and chess experts instead of actors for a number of the main roles, the performances can be a bit hit and miss. When these amateur actors are used, they tend to do very well when talking about shop, but in some of the inter-tournament banter the dialogue can fall a bit flat. The final third of the film gets much more surreal too and although it's admirably original, I did lose touch with it as it went on and felt more baffled than satisfied with its conclusion. Maybe that's a good thing, but it made it hard for me to come away wanting to recommend it to you all.
So, it's pretty obvious to say that this isn't a film for everyone. However, if you lean towards the more experimental side of filmmaking and have an affinity for the 'good old days' of early computing, Computer Chess is the film for you.
Computer Chess is out on now in the UK on Dual Format Blu-Ray and DVD, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Series. I watched the Blu-Ray version and to comment on the picture and sound quality is an unusual prospect. The film was shot on vintage video equipment from the 1970's which of course looks soft, murky and is in low contrast black and white, so it's hard to say it looked good and that it's a film that has to be seen on Blu-Ray. However, the HD presentation is as carefully done as possible to retain the photography's imperfections, which sounds ridiculous, but when I watched it I felt I was getting a better view of the analogue techniques than I would on DVD. However, this is a case where you probably don't lose a huge amount by watching it in standard definition.
If the benefits of the transfer are debatable, the benefits of the package's special features aren't. This is a fantastic package for fans of the film or talent involved. There isn't a cover-all 'making of' documentary, but there is a truck load of material which is equal parts informative and enjoyable whilst maintaining the unusual nature of the film.
There are two audio commentaries for starters. Neither of these feature the director though. One is with Murray Campbell, the programmer of Deep Blue, the first computer to beat the reigning world chess champion Garry Kasparov at the game. I expected this to be vaguely interesting and run out of steam quickly, but it's a surprisingly good listen, casting a fascinating insight into the history of computer chess programming as well as making me realise that the film is more accurate than it seems. The second commentary isn't quite as engaging though. It's supposedly a chat track from 'an enthusiastic stoner', which sounds like a bad joke and it is. I didn't get very far through it I must say. Stoners may find it amusing I guess, but it didn't do much for me and is more weird and awkward than funny.
Providing a look into the making of the film itself are three interviews. One is with Bujalski and is fantastic. The interviewer knows him and his work very well so the questions are well informed and the answers intelligent, looking at his career and how Computer Chess came about. Next up is an interview with cast member Wiley Wiggins. This enjoyable interview tells less about the film's production and more about Wiggins' life, working with Richard Linklater in the 90's and moving on to working as a programmer. He even helped with the vintage computer equipment on set. The final interview is with one of the producers, Alex Lipschultz. This is more solely focussed on the film's production, but is still great.
Also included is the short film Analogue Goose. This unusual 1 minute film was made for a newspaper to show what kind of filmmaker Bujalski is. It's very silly and didn't do much for me, but fans of the director may be interested to see it.
As well as the customary trailers, topping off the set is a load of promotional material. This is a bit hit and miss, but continues the trend of weirdness. The collection of 'Hot Old Personal Computers' and reference chess games are probably not for everyone, but I loved the dirty old synth soundtracks to them. 'How to Operate a Sony AVC-3260' is a look at the camera used in the film, which is great to see although the piece is very short and basic.
And no Masters of Cinema release would be complete without a handsomely presented booklet. This isn't one of their longest, consisting solely of an essay by Craig Keller (director of production of Masters of Cinema) interspersed with behind the scenes photography. The essay gives his thoughts on what the film's unusual content might signify. It's a bit academic and I felt like he was stretching a bit with some of his theories, but it's thought-provoking and worth a read, capping off an impressive package for a peculiar film.