The most interesting thing about 2013's cinematic landscape is the coming-of-age of Mumblecore. America's post-Cassavetes kids are stumbling out of spotty adolescence as Mark Duplass's star continued to rise (Zero Dark Thirty, Parkland) and as Lynn Shelton began helming episodes of New Girl.
In the past year, Mumblecore sounds just a little more amplified. Thus, we've witnessed Adam Wingard score a mainstream hit with You're Next; Greta Gerwig's star-author turn in Francis Ha; and A-listers Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick popping up in Joe Swanberg's Drinking Buddies.
Director Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation, Beeswax) has long been synonymous with the 'core, with improvised screenplays and a methodology not unlike the one outlined by Lars von Trier's Dogme '95 manifesto. Computer Chess, the winner of the prestigious Alfred P Sloan Feature Film Prize at this year's Sundance, is this warm, witty, cerebral film-maker's most innovative and playful picture to date.
Shot on a Sony AVC3260 – one of the earliest analogue video cameras – Computer Chess takes place at a 1980 tournament, where pioneering nerds pitch chess programs against each other and, finally, against a human chess master (played by film critic Gerard Peary).
It’s a time when geeks were not chic and pocket protectors were not ironic. The artificial intelligence is almost as painfully unreliable as the programmers’ social skills: a scene that follows one nerd’s accidental encounter with a couple of sexually open-minded late hippies is as excruciating as it is funny.
Tonally, this spectral oddity has plenty to offer for those who loved Upstream Colour. A wealth of lunatic period details (swingers, rebirthing seminars, hotel door prostitution) forms an appealing forum where ideas about determinism, technological utopianism, and the military-industrial complex.
Slowly but surely, the film mirrors its primary focus – a program that thinks it is human – to incorporate glitches and loops. A cat appears to replicate himself until the dingy, hosting conference hotel is overrun with feline simulacra. Later, the characters seem to move like chess pieces.
Wiley Wiggins is super as a sleazy tournament contender, a tempering all-too-human presence against the math fiction backdrop.
Writer-director Bujalski and cinematographer Matthias Grunsky keep us guessing if this is actual or theoretical space. Think vintage found footage meets wilfully anachronistic dot matrix art. And then think way, way outside the box.