What mumblecore was in 2003 has become some sort of mutant studio-driven hybrid. Or perhaps it’s merely left to the hands of its godfather. The pristine visuals and narratively-driven aspects of Aaron Katz’ Cold Weather is a clear departure from the director’s debut Dance Party, USA. And look no further than Mark and Jay Duplass when comparing early mumblecore (The Puffy Chair) with mainstream efforts like Jeff, Who Lives At Home and Cyrus, both of which are comprised of established Hollywood elite. But then there’s Andrew Bujalski. His debut feature, Funny Ha Ha, soured my already tepid response to the early mumblecore offerings. Yet as directors have looked to tidy up the messy visual presentation and unrefined acting of early mumblecore, Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess goes in the opposite direction. One way or the other, it’s a departure from what’s been established.
Computer Chess is an ugly film. Shot on an archaic Sony AVC-3260 tube camera, Bujalski is quite clearly hoping to visualize his 80s setting in an authentic way. And when saddled with the film’s narrative and thematic devices, it amounts to a succinct and stimulating little nugget of a picture. I either never gave Bujalski the credit for Funny Ha Ha or he’s taken a giant leap forward as a technician, but the man has a unique sensibility – he meshes the aesthetic of a mumblecore picture with the formal integrity of an accomplished director. Let’s just say it sure beats the hell out of the Duplass’ cumbersome camera movement and ill-defined compositions.
The film initially appears to be constructed in the vein of a mockumentary but takes some wild and off-kilter detours. From the premise of computer programmers pitting their chess software against one another, Computer Chess emerges as something of a dystopian nightmare of the nerd variety. The suffocating and insular environment ends up being the cinematic equivalent of Escher’s Relativity, where one door leads you to an entirely different universe. From the pot-induced musings of a conspiracy theorist (an oxymoron?) to contemplating the potential of a threesome, Bujalski makes the stay at Computer Chess’ hotel on par with a visit to the Overlook or Bates Motel.
Bizarre and wholly unique, Computer Chess doesn’t quite resonate as much more than a novelty. Bujalski had a good thing going in so far of establishing milieu and proving to be a capable writer/director. But his proficiency buckles when he’s forced to flesh out the thematic devices of his film. The strains of reconciling human inadequacies by designing and programming perfection is my biggest takeaway from Computer Chess, but even then the film’s various layers superimpose upon each other without ever feeling fully whole. Like Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, I suspect Computer Chess will age rather well as I reflect back upon it in time. But disconnect between respect for the craft and adoration for the film itself is too vast. A scene in Computer Chess ends up illustrating my overall feelings toward it: a programmer is accosted by a couple with the promise of a threesome. An awkward feeling out period begins, with the man looking to go through with it – only to bolt out of the room. Computer Chess is like the idea of a threesome – good in theory, though not necessarily something worth going through.