“…laughing out loud and lapping up every muddy grey pixel of this home video styled opus that throws conventional film craft right out the window. This is Computer Chess.”
Review (text version)
Here’s a film to divide viewers. My guess is about 70% of people will hate it, 20% will go, “what was that?” and 10%, self included, will be laughing out loud and lapping up every muddy grey pixel of this home video styled opus that throws conventional film craft right out the window. This is Computer Chess
It’s 1980, or there ’bouts, and a bunch of competitive minded types descend on a hotel for a weekend of… competition. Into the arena of death, or glory, enter the gladiators – their aim? Winner takes all in a fight to the final keystroke… Yes, their weapons are computers and they are pitting their refined logic against… well against nothing really because the real “competitors” are computers – and no, it’s not a TRANSFORMERS movie.
Andrew Bujalski, writer and director of the near to non budget “Funny Ha Ha”, again working here on a near to no budget, was faced with a dilemma – he wanted his new (at the time) film to look like it was shot, right there, on the spot, capturing every non nail-biting moment of code crunching and circuit clashing carnage of this pre Commodore 64 event.
Mainstream film makers can spend a lot dollars and lot of effort to get a certain film “look” that echoes a bygone era. Martin Scorsese on “The Aviator” kept film labs and digital colourists employed for months in an effort to mimic early 1930s two strip technicolor, using modern equipment and film stocks… and in the end most audiences just thought there was something wrong with the colour of the print they were seeing anyway.
So, how much effort would you need to recreate the look of a 1970’s portable, black and white analogue, tube, video camera?
Yes, you could shoot with modern equipment like an Arri Alexa and then spend a small fortune in post production to make the image look like something it never was … or, you could just use a 1970’s black and white tube video camera, right? Wrong… No one has manufactured the hardware for 40 years.
Even if you could shoot it how would you record the output signal authentically? Again, no one makes the video tape anymore and if you pulled some old reels off a shelf to reuse, there’s a good chance the oxide coating would simply fall off… it just doesn’t survive in the long run.
But, could you get one of those old cameras fired up and a picture going? Yes… then could you take the signal out the back, bypass using an “of the era” video recorder, and capture the signal on to a modern format… like something that’s been modified to convert analogue Sanskrit to modern zeros and ones? Turns out “yes”.
Bujalski, his cinematographer Matthias Grunsky and the crew got clever with modifying three Sony AVC 3260 cameras, that were in common use in the 70s, creating a hybrid form – front end analogue black and white camera, back end a modern digital recording medium.
What makes Computer Chess feel so real and so anchored in the period, beyond the proliferation of oversized eye wear, perforated printer paper and period pocket protectors is this totally authentic video “look” – as if the whole event was indeed shot in that daggy hotel on that specific weekend in 198o whatever by a crew who had little idea of technique.
And at this point that old chestnut of debate raises its head yet again – is it a conventional comedy slash drama, or is it a mocumentary?
Computer Chess definitely gets a little confused within it’s own world construct. It starts off doco style then, when convenient, drops in on situations and conversations where a camera would never be present, at times even filming the crew filming the film.
Lets face it the only legitimate way to get the supposed single camera capturing the action into the action is to point at a mirror (or other highly reflective surface) but here, through the magic of the movies, at times our “crew” are in front of the camera… with the camera… There’s a whole thesis just waiting to be written on the breaking of that fourth wall. Yes, sometimes it seems there is a second camera, which clearly appears to be hand held, then we cut to a shot (seemingly from the second camera?) but the shot is suddenly tripod rigid and clearly not from the same angle as the second camera.
The little “awards” scene in the film, around 1:05 into the film could only be shot live with about five cameras… but still only one is shown, even though in wide shots the other cameras would be seen to be able to capture the angles they show… but ultimately does anyone out there really care? No, I’m just being a purist about the whole objective / subjective issue and those wavy lines that seem to always arise when pseudo documentaries start drifting into the arena of techniques possible only in constructed and manipulated drama coverage. OK, enough of the dissertation on film theory. I’ll get off my soap box… now where was I?
I have to admit, Computer Chess is one of the most original and refreshing movies I’ve seen in years. It’s way out there as a one-of-a-kind both technically and “artistically”.
Given the cast are largely non actors there is surprising subtlety in performances – no coarse acting to be seen anywhere – and Bujalski delicately orchestrates every maneuver cementing the “K” in Cringe Comedy.
At times the humour is so gentle on the upload you don’t even realise you are meant to be laughing until a scene is nearly played out which just makes each byte of information all the more delectable.
You DO care about meek and mild Peter and whether he gets laid or not, and you DO care that the even meeker Shelly stands a chance of being accepted by the boys and taken seriously for her skills.
Then there’s the couple attending the couples workshop at the same venue who decide to befriend young Peter and offer him an introduction to a whole new type of cross platform communication.
“So will I like this one, Greg?” I hear you ask. Probably not for most of you – so go look at a noisy marvel super hero movie – but if you are up for high doses of brain draining visual blandness BUT where mundanity is a masquerade for the truly eccentric and erudite, then do press “enter” to make the first move. Chess is victory!
© 2016 Greg Punch
Production company (review):
Production of “Computer Chess”:
Running time: 92 min
Writer / director: Andrew Bujalski
What cast? Wasn’t this a found-footage doco?
Patrick Riester, Wiley Wiggins, Myles Paige, Robin Schwartz, Gerald Peary
Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
“Egmont Overture (via Beethoven)”
“Danse Macabre – Big Hit 1”
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/
On set photos:
Thanks to the Producers of “Computer Chess” and Mathias Grunsky for permission to reproduce photos taken on set. Select photos © Carlyn Hudson.
John Seale on location with Arri Alexa for “Mad Max Fury Road”. Village Roadshow Pictures / Kennedy Miller Mitchell. Distributed by Roadshow (Australia) and Warner Bros (USA / International)
1970’s promotional photos of Sony AVC3260, other cameras, video tape and related “porta pack” video equipment © SONY (used here for historical / illustrative / educational purposes only)
Blog of the Cinematographer of “Computer Chess” – Matthias Grunsky where he discusses shooting the film…
Great article about shooting Computer Chess…
Site about video tape preservation…
Article for those with intense tech interests…
“Getting in sync with the Sony AVC-3250”
editor Mark R. Hasan
Rotten Tomatoes 86% fresh (read what other reviewers have said about this film)…
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