2013 Film #14: Computer Chess
(Writer & Director: Andrew Bujalski)
Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess starts as a mockumentary about a humanless chess tournament held between rival programmers, but quickly devolves into something entirely weirder. The film is set in the early 80s as teams from MIT, Berkeley, and some private companies pit their computers and operating systems against each other in chess. The champion gets to face off against the tournament runner and resident Master Pat Henderson (an actual human). In the early stages, as we are introduced to the concept, tournament, and principal characters, the film is centered on the possibilities of computer programming and artificial intelligence. But then, the defending champion computer starts acting weird, and the film goes with it.
Shot on black and white tube video cameras and set in the 80s, the film feels unlike anything else I’ve seen. And structurally, Bujalski doesn’t have a single narrative through line; he’s content to go everywhere and each major character gets his own arc or theme: Peter is intent on figuring out what’s wrong with his group’s programming, Nick Papageorge is constantly wandering the halls trying to find somewhere to sleep (much like Cookie and Gerry Fleck in Best in Show, he couldn’t get a room), and there’s a territorial battle over the conference room between the tournament players and a weird, new-age couples therapy group that seems to have rented it out in the mornings. Each of these plotlines gets its own feel, which makes Computer Chess a hard film to nail down: it has elements of comedy, satire, surrealism, political espionage, and science-fiction. Some of them work better than others, and given the shoe-string budget, some performances are better than others. But the mixture feels just right, and despite the schizophrenic styles, there is a singularity of vision here that coalesces everything together.
I was initially thrown off because there isn’t a coherent visual logic to the film. It begins under the pretense of a documentary (we hear Pat Henderson scolding the camera operator as he shoots towards the sun because he might blow the tube on the camera), but Bujalski isn’t consistent with it. Sometimes we are clearly in the documentary style, in others we are in a conventional shot/reverse-shot style, while in others he is almost Lynchian in his camerawork. After I sort of gave in to the fact that the film was going to shift and break rules, I was able to settle in to the stories and have a good time. Although it isn’t wholly successful (I wish it was more funny), Bujalski’s scope and vision is worth the trip.
Film #15: Frances Ha
(Writers: Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig; Director: Noah Baumbach)
I’m just not sure a likable film (or TV show) can be made about disaffected, self-obsessed, white New York hipsters. Whether its the self-conscious honesty of Lena Dunham’s Girls or the sardonic, dark critique of The Comedy, nothing can stop the fact that these kinds of people are painful to spend time with. Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha is the most bearable look into this milieu, but it is only saved by its title character and the great performance of Greta Gerwig. While everyone around her works to push you away, Frances keeps pulling you back in.
For the first 30 minutes of Frances Ha, I wanted to shoot almost everyone on screen. I hit pause, took the dog for a walk, and when I came back, I was better able to sink in. This is partly because Frances begins to take shape as a character who holds the weight of the film, but it also became a little more clear what Baumbach was trying to do.
As much as they try, it is incredibly difficult to take the Williamsburgh generation seriously. Although they couch themselves in irony, they are still clueless, walking stereotypes. Obviously, Baumbach sees them this way, as its nearly impossible to think that he isn’t making fun of his characters when Benji claims he is making real headway on his Gremlins 3 spec-script or Lev…dresses like Lev. But what’s the point? How easy and pointless is it to make fun of these people? What kind of critique of narcissism and technological vapidity isn’t already self-evident in their very existence? I was loaded with these thoughts as we were introduced to each new character in the film’s opening act.
But the film is called Frances Ha, and in Frances lies the film’s heart. She is a genuine person desperate for friendship, and her uniqueness stands in stark contrast to the people around her. There isn’t an ounce of irony in her, and although she likes all the things the people around her profess to like, there’s an earnestness to her, even when she’s lying, that they aren’t quite able to handle (Benji constantly calls her undateable). This manifests itself in the best sequences of the film: Frances attempting to stage a fake fight with a friend in the park, dancing joyously through the New York streets, or working at her old college even though she’s way too old.
But she’s also a very sad person who lies to herself and others, and clings to people that show the slightest interest in her. For the first 2/3 of the film, she’s desperately trying to match the interests and personalities of the people around her, even when it’s clear she can’t. So the film hinges on her realizing that she only really needs herself, and when she does that, she can become genuinely happy.
Baumbach shows a love for Frances that is infectious and that’s also unique to his filmography. Maybe his real-life relationship with Gerwig is softening him. Although he can’t quite escape his more biting roots, Frances Ha is ultimately a funny, enjoyable film. (Oh, it’s also in black and white).