Monday, December 02, 2013

I'm way behind #9: Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski)

"Mumblecore" is one of those words, like "grunge," that's slightly pejorative and entirely ridiculous, an umbrella term lazy journalists and marketing types use to group together superficially similar work under the guise of a movement that doesn't exist until the word's constant repetition puts a frame on it, but it's also one of those words, like "grunge," that seems to fit its subjects anyway. You know mumblecore when you see it, like you know grunge when you hear it, even though there's really no such thing as mumblecore and no such thing as grunge, even though there is, and you know it when you see it/hear it, even though there's no such thing. 
The group of films lumped into the mumblecore descriptor do share a lot of superficial qualities. They are primarily low-budget independent films with non-actors, made by and focusing on lazy, inarticulate twenty- and thirtysomething "hipsters" (another one of those meaningless but packed-with-meaning umbrella terms) as they experience relationship, career, and/or artistic problems that are too mild or poorly articulated to be considered crises. I dislike a lot of these films and have a guarded enjoyment of others that never quite manages to congeal into respect. Some of these films look like garbage, with not much thought given to shot composition. There are a few gems buried in this movement-that's-not-a-movement, though, and most of them are Bujalski's.
Bujalski's first two films, Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, sound like nothing special on paper. The first is about inarticulate hipsters in Boston and their relationship problems. The second is about inarticulate hipsters in Brooklyn and their relationship problems. Bujalski, though, unlike contemporaries Joe Swanberg and the Duplass brothers, has a real filmmaker's eye for shot composition, a knack for capturing organic unforced weirdness, and a sense of offbeat narrative driven by the characters and the visuals and the rhythmic possibilities of film editing instead of mumblecore's usual aimless narcissism and "eh, it's good enough" camera placement. And when most of his peers were shooting on crappy digital cameras, Bujalski shot on 16mm film. By the time of his third film, Beeswax, he'd become a more relaxed, confident, and visually accomplished filmmaker, and his characters were smarter, more articulate, less smug, and more complex. Beeswax is Bujalski's warmest film, both narratively and visually, and a more successful piece of slice-of-life realism than most of American film's given us lately.
Computer Chess is something else entirely. This is a film that doesn't belong to any movement, media-created or otherwise. It's a weird, weird movie, so full of humor and life and ideas and digressions and moments of unexpected beauty. Set in the very early '80s in a nondescript motel that doubles as the site of a computer chess tournament and a New Age self-help guru's retreat, the film was shot on black-and-white analog video that looks like old security-camera footage. The images created by this camera are simultaneously ugly and beautiful, and they create an atmosphere and tone I've never seen before. This is one of the most convincing period films I've seen as well. It feels like the early '80s, not people pretending they're in the early '80s. Instead of nostalgia, though, Bujalski is creating something new, a hybrid of documentary-style cinema verite, comedy, drug trip, experimental film, science fiction, character study, and exploration of artificial intelligence. Computer Chess is Bujalski's funniest and most disturbing film, by a wide margin, and it's a real leap forward for him. He's way outside his comfort zone, but he's brought all his strengths to the party. This is an original work by a filmmaker I thought I had pinned down, but the way he balances and combines contradictory elements here has changed my estimation of what he can do. I'm excited to see where he goes from here as he continues to move away from the mumblecore ghetto.

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