Tag Archives: Mumblecore

Computer Chess

Computer Chess
Computer Chess

Format: Cinema

Release date: 22 November 2013

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Andrew Bujalski

Writer: Andrew Bujalski

Cast: Kriss Schludermann, Tom Fletcher, Wiley Wiggins

USA 2013

89 mins

Those of us who remember the early days of computers and an era before technology became the everyday fabric of our social and working existence can’t but have a soft spot for Computer Chess. The fourth feature from Andrew Bujalski, a US filmmaker whose films, including Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, ignited the relatively short-lived ‘mumblecore’ trend of low-budget American independent filmmaking, it is described by its producers as an ‘artificially intelligent’ comedy. Though a little too reductive and pleading for attention, the tag is not a million miles wide of the mark. The winner of the prestigious Arthur P. Sloan Award, an achievement recognising a film based around the theme of science and/or technology, Computer Chess is by some considerable margin the director’s most accomplished, accessible and prescient work.

Computer Chess is set in and around an isolated roadside motel over the course of a 1980s weekend conference, where a group of obsessive software programmers have convened to pit their latest refinements in machine chess and the still-developing field of artificial intelligence against a somewhat circumspect chess master. One of the junior programmers attending the conference, a singularly unappetising banquet of cheap plaid suits, bad coffee and bland interiors, begins to suspect that the computer for which he is responsible has developed the ability to detect the difference between a human and an artificial opponent. The computer begins to display elements of self-consciousness, rather like a benign HAL from Kubrick’s 2001. Meanwhile, the junior programmer’s own attempts to engage with the sole female attendee at the conference, about whom a great deal of fuss is made, is punctured by social awkwardness and a preference for interaction with keyboards and motherboards over humans.

Computer Chess is released in the UK in a Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray) edition on 20 January 2014.

Gesturing towards the semi-virtual, hyper-social and dehumanised landscape that is now our everyday reality, Computer Chess effectively anticipates how insecurity and a lack of self-confidence would come to be rendered of little consequence in a brave new digital era, an environment dominated by the iPad, the iPhone and the age of the app. Perfectly capturing a period in which technology seemed within easy reach – although it still had to be accessed by middle-aged men with terrible haircuts, synthetic suits and spectacles the size of sofas – the film’s most genuinely astonishing aspect is its beautifully articulated visual aesthetic. Like Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s recent No, which was filmed on Umatic VHS cameras to capture the visual tone of 1980s Chile, Computer Chess uses period equipment to incredible effect.

Sourcing archival, analogue vacuum tube-based video cameras, Bujalski and cinematographer Matthias Grunsky deliver a work that really looks and sounds as if it belongs to another time. There is an innocence to the look of the film that we know now to be utterly at odds with the seismic social and technological changes that it anticipates. That innocence is accentuated by the film’s aesthetic and it is interesting to imagine how younger viewers will react to the film’s abstract wonder for clunky screens and dot-matrix monitors that would soon completely reconfigure and change our lives. As filmmaking becomes more and more reliant on effects and artificially generated images, it is encouraging to see directors like Bujalski reflecting on shifts in film and technology in general. That he does so in a film as witty and engaging as Computer Chess is all the more invigorating.

Jason Wood

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Frances Ha

Frances Ha4
Frances Ha

Format: Cinema

Release date: 26 July 2013

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Noah Baumbach

Writers: Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig

Cast: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver

USA 2012

86 mins

It all starts with a mobile phone. Frances, a 27-year-old living in New York, points out that her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) has become distracted since getting a ‘cell with emails’. They’re at that age: on the cusp between post-grad optimism and the realities of growing up, and while some (Sophie) are cranking up to professional success and personal fulfilment, others (Frances) are still struggling to get themselves going.

Frances, played by mumblecore darling Greta Gerwig, is a long-term dance understudy. Refreshingly, Frances is what Americans refer to as a bit of a ‘clutz’, masculine of gait and gauche of manners. It is no surprise to the viewer that she is forever the stand-in and never the lead. At the beginning of the film, she splits up with her boyfriend and the ensuing action sees the remainder of her life (primarily her close friendship with Sophie) unravel.

With its New York setting, witty yet flawed female protagonist and concern with the hinterland between youth and adulthood, Frances Ha already appears a lot like Lena Dunham’s Girls, and that’s even before Adam Driver (who stars in the HBO series, as well as Dunham’s earlier film, Tiny Furniture) appears on screen, playing a potential love interest for ‘undateable’ Frances. You may wonder whether it was budget constraints or a nod to Tiny Furniture that caused Frances’s parents to be played by Gerwig’s own parents, just as Dunham’s mother and sister starred as those of her character in Tiny Furniture. The answer is probably both. It most certainly can’t be a coincidence: Gerwig, who co-wrote the film with Noah Baumbach, and Dunham are good friends.

But where Girls is squalid and explicit, Frances Ha is cute and whimsical, thanks in part to its French New Wave influence (it is shot in black and white, has a soundtrack that references Truffaut and indulges Frances with the occasional long tracking shot of her running or dancing through Manhattan). It is also funnier. Where Dunham’s characters might strip off and engage in humiliating sex on camera, Frances simply refers to an ex who could only climax when having sex with her from behind, lamenting the fact that in this position ‘all the important things are covered’.

To challenge the current popular thinking that television has overcome film as the medium with which to tell sophisticated and powerful stories, despite using the same milieu and subject matter as Dunham, Baumbach and Gerwig have created something more joyful and more entertaining than its television counterpart. But they’re lucky. Their film, which has an uplifting if slightly idealised ending, exists in its own finite universe. Girls, which is far more bleak and problematic, is perhaps feted to be so, given that it lives or dies on the vagaries of television commissioners. The mediums have similar backgrounds but, while one is already established in telling stories of this nature, the other is still finding its feet, just like Sophie and Frances.

Lisa Williams

Watch the trailer: