Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, 2013)

The appearance of the Masters of Cinema logo at the start of this film came as a pleasant – and stirring – surprise. My interest for the series was kindled when I bought a copy of Fritz Lang’s M on Blu-ray a few years ago and noticed the #9 on the spine, which was an ingenious way of making someone like me find out more. If this is number nine, then where are the previous eight?! Are they all Lang masterpieces? Maybe it branches out into other early-20th Century German filmmakers…

Actually, the series has no rules, just great films with careful consideration to the packaging, booklets, title screens, bonus features and, crucially, ensuring the transfer of the film itself is of the highest quality. More recently, Masters of Cinema have branched out into the distribution of new films, the latest of which is Andrew Bujalski’s mumblecore triumph Computer Chess.

Admittedly, seeing a mumblecore film I had purposefully avoided reading anything about prior to watching it could have been disastrous, especially considering it was the fourth in a series of seven films I was watching at the London Film Festival over a four-day-period. It didn’t matter a bit.

The film kicks off with a press conference to introduce the key competitors in a computer chess tournament in 1983, all of whom think they have the most advanced computer programme. Running the show is the host of the tournament Henderson (played by Gerald Peary in his acting debut) who lays down the gauntlet of a grand final human-against-computer chess match to whomever wins the tournament. Traversing the chasm to the unfamiliar world we are eavesdropping on is filmmaker John (played by another debutant Jim Lewis), who finds the whole thing both side-splitting and bizarre in equal measure. It is shot so authentically using carefully sourced low-grade home video technology from the period, that I’m sure that the uninformed amongst the audience (myself included) thought they were in fact watching a potentially very boring documentary. It is in this scene that we are also introduced to Michael Papageorge, played by Myles Paige (Funny Ha Ha), the standout performer in the early parts of the film who is clearly happy to ruffle some feathers and show he means business.

As the film progresses, we are indulged with many nods to the early 1980s – be it the naturally delivered chauvinistic comments made by the host or the now absurd general feeling amongst everyone there that the future had finally arrived in the form of their prized personal computers that could almost outsmart a human if programmed correctly. Meanwhile, Paige busies himself falling into a David Lynch-esque subplot and in turn passes the focus to Patrick Reister, whose character Peter Bishop is so excruciatingly introvert you wonder how anyone would dare make him the centre-point of a film for such a long period. Yet Reister is brilliant in teasing out the audience’s emotions as someone we just wish would come out of his shell more and live life outside of the world the players have carved out for themselves. He does this almost entirely through body language and facial expression as his shy character is afforded only infrequent passages of nervously delivered dialogue. It is a first class performance.

Not all of the film works quite as well. The tournament is sharing the hotel space for the weekend with a meditation escape weekend and to be honest it feels like these passages just get in the way. Equally, the scenes in the latter part of the film that appear in colour really stand out as far too polished and detract from the indulgent escapism of the rest of the film.

I left the film feeling like the story hadn’t really been tied together properly. As an authentic ode to the joys of early-‘80s home video recording, though, it was the only way it could have ended.

Computer Chess is released in cinemas in the UK on 22nd November 2013.

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