Director: Andrew Bujalski
Stars: Patrick Wiester, Wiley Wiggins
5 (out of 5) Globes
Originality can be overrated. When a film — or a song, or a book, or anything — comes along that’s genuinely unusual, there’s a tendency to dwell on the uniqueness without burrowing deeper into the work. Let’s get this out of the way: “Computer Chess,” the fourth film from “mumblecore” pioneer Andrew Bujalski, is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. A first viewing can be spent marveling and mouthing “wow” over how legitimately and unspeakably weird it is.
Set at a titular event at a tiny, nowhere hotel in either the late ‘70s or early ‘80s, it was shot with a Sony AVC-3260, a video camera designed in the 1960s. The splotchy black-and-white, combined with the tacky clothing, oversized glasses and toxic geekiness, give it the air of outsider art. It starts out having the air of fake-found footage, but only gets richer and stranger. Cats inexplicably roam the hallways, characters discombobulate and there’s even a leftfield color sequence that’s never explained.
It’s a gas, but a second viewing reveals a certain depth. This isn’t a mere stunt, although the camerawork and editing — wreaking of de-centered frames and inexplicable cuts, a rarely not-hilarious simulation of amateur filmmaking — give it a vague midnight movie feel. The concern here, voiced by many in the unforced (but not-mumblecore-y) dialogue, is the fear of machines taking over man. The characters feel this is imminent. We, viewers from 25-30 years in the future, know this to not be true.
Or do we? Even in the bygone world of “Computer Chess,” there’s a lack of communication. We never get to know much about any character. The most prominent (Patrick Riester), almost never speaks, and never smiles. He’s less shy than robotic. The patrons of the computer chess competition rarely speak unless they’re inebriated via booze or high on drugs. Even those taking part in a concurrent conference — some kind of hippie/love-in psychology deal left over from the ‘60s — only communicate superficially.
This said, “Computer Chess” isn’t a thesis film. It more accurately embodies a certain anxiety — a fear of the future from the fairly distant past that throws our own fears into sharper relief. It conveys this without sledgehammer tactics, but in a style that’s its own thing. Bujalski has always thought outside the box. “Funny Ha Ha,” his 2002 debut, brought back no-budget 16mm studies of young adults when no one had done them since the heyday of Sundance. With “Computer Chess,” he creates his own type of film. It’s original — but luckily, much more.