Andrew Bjalski is kind of a big deal when it comes to indie film thanks to the fact that he’s credited with kicking off the mumblecore movement. And we’re talking really mumblecore here: amateur actors, painfully natural dialog and low-budget aesthetics. A.O. Scott called Ha Ha Funny one of the most influential films of the last decade.
His latest film, Computer Chess, is definitely in the quirky sub-genre, but while it adheres to the tropes of much of his previous work it also veers away. This may simultaneously be his most accessible film and his least.
Computer Chess takes us back to the 1980s where an annual competition among computer programmers to see who has designed the best chess playing computer has taken place. It’s the perfect setting for the socially awkward dialog of Bujaleski and a powerfully intriguing screenplay that involves hints of love, artificial intelligence and, surprisingly, tense chess sequences. Less like his previous films, Computer Chess does have a beginning and end, but like his previous films there’s a world of story left unsaid lying beneath the screenplay.
Bujaleski shot the entire film on Sony 1968 AVC-3260 B&W cameras, which have a decidedly low-budget look. At times this lends to the film’s aesthetic, but for others you find yourself wishing it wasn’t such a predominant feature since it actually gets in the way of the film’s narrative. The movie often takes you out of it with dialog being out of sync or issues with the recording popping up. Whether these problems were intentional or not, they don’t always work in the film’s favor. It’s a testament to Bujalski’s ability to grab shots with such a low-grade camera that the film still feels like it wasn’t shot by an amateur.
It’s not just the aesthetic that’s hit or miss either. The casting of relatively unknown actors, a staple of his films, hinders the film in places. Leading man, for lack of a better term, Peter Bishop (Patrick Riester) is painfully good in his role as a insanely socially awkward computer programmer who during the course of the film is thrust into a swinger situation, falls in love and discovers a growing AI. Some of his delivers are so painstakingly slow and uncomfortable that you’re practically begging him in your mind to get on with it. It’s a fantastic anguish that makes the movie better. However, not all the cast is up to this snuff, and that comes off even worse thanks to the naturalistic dialog. Myles Paige as computer programmer Peter Papageorge is particularly bad at delivering his lines, which is too bad since his character could have been the best one.
If you stick with the movie you’ll find that it improves as it goes along. It’s possible it’s just getting used to the low quality sound and odd black and white images, but it’s more likely that it’s because you somehow become involved with these characters through the series of vignettes that leads to us learning about them. There’s charm and wit as it starts to open up as we spend the weekend with the computer programmers delving deep into their games. In the end the film is more about our human interactions than the computer ones of course and the inability of the characters to truly communicate as they attempt to make their computers do it for them through chess is a running theme through the film.
Not everything works to build on it, however. Some of the discussions drag on far longer than they should, falling prey to the film’s dialog and the smaller side story lines often clutter up the ones you want to pay attention to. Their good for a few laughs, but background stories about government contracts and a side story with Papageorge seem out of place. There is a couple group that intersects with the chess competition that forms the contrast to the programmer’s inability to communicate by over communicating, but this too hits sometimes and misses others.