Notes from the LFF: Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, USA, 2013)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2013

In a recent essay that chimes with many aspects of my own ongoing research – into DV filmmaking from all over the world – Francesco Casetti and Antonio Somaini argue that low definition filmmaking is cinema’s attempt, after Marshall McLuhan, to ‘cool down’.

That is, cinema has become so fast, so ‘hot’, such an intense stimulation of the senses, that it needs to ‘cool down’ – and to become more low definition in its images. Or rather, films that are made using low definition images seek to cool the medium down, such that a balance is within audiovisual media is restored.

I like this line of argument, but I do not agree with it entirely. For, what Casetti and Somaini’s essay suggests is that low definition films are always already in the service of high definition films – acting as a necessary brake to their relentless drive towards bigger, faster, brighter, louder…

And while I suspect that there is truth in this, I am not sure that filmmakers of deliberately low definition films feel that they are complicit with the high definition films with which they (cannot) compete.

Nonetheless, given that Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess is a film shot using video cameras (the Sony AVC-3260) as per those available at the time of the film’s late 1970s/early 1980s setting, this is nonetheless a movie that has resonance with Casetti and Somaini’s thesis.

The film tells the story of various computer programmers who holes up in a hotel conference room for a weekend to take part in a computer versus computer chess tournament, which will culminate in the winner taking on a human chess Grand Master.

Given the ‘tournament’ set-up, the film’s mockumentary approach, and the video aesthetic, Computer Chess feels very much like a mix between Best in Show (Christopher Guest, USA, 2000) and recent return-to-video films Trash Humpers (Harmony Korine, USA, 2009) and No (Pablo Larraín, Chile/USA/France/Mexico, 2012).

But the combination works: here at the beginning of the more intense period of the digital era, we have in fact a nostalgia for buggy, inefficient computers that will never be faster or smarter than a human, delivered with the blocky, blurry images of a video camera that promised never to replace good ol’ analogue filmmaking.

While Bujalski draws some hilarious geek characters, whose commitment to computer chess might make of them something like human automatons, nonetheless Computer Chess itself is a very human film – something made most clear by the increasingly hallucinogenic nature of the film.

That is, cats invade the screen, a computer seems to become sentient, and humans start to act as if computers. Akin in a certain fashion to Ben Wheatley’s wonderful A Field in England (UK, 2013), the trippy nature of Computer Chess suggests the way in which human identity and thought remain elusive in terms of our ability to compute ourselves (indeed, within neuroscience, the argument that the human brain is like a computer has somewhat receded in recent years).

A deliberate assault upon mainstream film aesthetics, Computer Chess does ‘slow down’ mainstream cinema – making of this film an example of the non-cinema that is the beating heart of cinema proper.

In other words, while some so-called ‘mumblecore’ directors seem to be inching – if not sprinting – towards increasingly audience-friendly, cutesy fare (I am thinking of the Duplass brothers and Lynn Shelton, even though I like all as filmmakers), Bujalski seems to be pursuing a braver, more idiosyncratic path (as also is Joe Swanberg, what with his seven-productions-a-year ethos).

Computer Chess won’t please everyone, but is prepared to be its own film, to court disapprobation by telling both a weird story and with a ‘grungy’ aesthetic. Whatever ‘mumblecore’ is or was, if this is it, then it remains relevant and exciting even today.