The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Computer Chess

computer-chess

Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess (2013) represents a radical departure for this indie writer/director. Bujalski has been associated with mumblecore ever since Funny Ha Ha (2002) won recognition at the SXSW Film Festival in 2005 (even though the film actually debuted three years earlier). His first two films helped to define a film movement that captured the awkward social interactions of his own generation, as his characters attempted to navigate interpersonal relationships consisting of mixed signals and crushes on friends in a time of diminished economic expectations. In 2013, technology has become the new religion, controlling virtually every aspect of our lives. While it has been amazingly transformative – there is no question we are addicted to the minicomputers we carry around in our purses and pockets – it is also largely replacing jobs formerly done by humans, which has relegated many younger people, such as the ones who populated Bujalski’s earlier films, to marginal economic status. By going back in time to the period of the early 1980s, Bujalski explores the world of nerds just as they are on the verge of taking over the culture due to their skills at computer programming.

In re-creating the early years of personal computing, Bujalski has lovingly managed to capture the look and feel of a time we easily forget – before email, texting and Skype. In discussing the future of artificial intelligence, the videographer (Kevin Bewersdorf) at one point suggests it could eventually be used for dating, an idea that causes the programmers to chuckle at the unlikely prospect. Bujalski has a knack for nailing these nerdy characters with their baggy polyester clothes, overly large eye glasses, tie clips, and retro haircuts. His eye for detail includes a professor named Tom Shoesser (Gordon Kindlmann), who arrives late, along with a wife and baby who seem like strange appendages. Computer Chess could easily be described as a study in gray and white. The lack of contrast in these images suggests a world that looks surprisingly like Eastern Europe during communism, an effect that Bujalski achieves through shrewd art direction and by shooting in a documentary-like style with a Sony AVC 3260 camera. Like Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (2010), Bujalski finds an odd beauty in the degraded image of early video, complete with breakup, lens burns, cheesy split-screen effects, negative images, awkward superimpositions, dropout, Academy aspect ratio, and various glitches.

Computer Chess is a complex ensemble piece, with so many characters and plot threads that it is initially hard to get one’s bearings. The film centers on a weekend computer chess tournament held at a budget motel. The competition is portrayed as a kind of three-ring circus overseen by its nerdy ringleader, chess whiz Pat Henderson (played by film critic and scholar Gerald Peary), who is eagerly waiting to challenge the winner. Much of the film involves the competition between various computer chess teams, but, in some ways, this is the least interesting material. It is the peripheral sideshows and characters who manage to steal the show. Mike Papageorge (played by Bujalski’s school chum Myles Paige from Funny Ha Ha), appears on a panel early on, where he’s identified as an independent programmer. He frowns during the session, and when finally called upon, he tells Pat: “I find the programming of my fellow competitors to be almost as boring as this discussion.” Despite his bravado, it turns out he cannot afford a hotel room. His efforts to find one represent some of the most humorous incidents in the film.

There is also the lone female contestant on the MIT team, Shelly Flintic (Robin Schwartz), who becomes a veiled object of ridicule for Henderson and the other contestants, as well as an object of desire. Mike Papageorge is the first to attempt to crash her room, but it turns out that she’s sheltering her team’s computer, which is so large that it takes up much of the floor space, providing her with an excuse for not letting him stay there. Shelly, who wears a heart pendant around her neck, is so painfully shy and nervous that she can barely speak. The same could be said for Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester), a program assistant from the Caltech team, who, in many ways, helps to hold the multi-strand narrative together. Peter will later get Shelly to help him run experiments when his team’s computer, Tsar 3.0, takes on a life of its own by performing poorly against other computers, but not against humans.

Meanwhile, a group of spiritual seekers are also holding their own encounter therapy sessions in another part of the same hotel. Overseen by an African guru named Keneiloe (Tishuan Scott), the couples undergo group therapy by groaning loudly, fondling loaves of bread, and becoming reborn as free people. One of them, Dave (Chris Doubek), runs into Peter outside the motel and engages him in conversation. When Peter explains the tournament, Dave muses, “Computers play chess against computers. Wow!” He’s a bit too over solicitous. Although Peter looks about sixteen, Dave asks suggestively, “Are you married?” As he leaves, he remarks, “Hey, we got the same color eyes, man,” a discovery he’s made about his own wife during the encounter session. We are not surprised when he later invites Peter to his room where he and his wife, Pauline (Cyndi Williams), are ripe for swinging. She asks Peter, “Have you ever tried LSD?” She compares Peter to Columbus, but she and Dave worry that he’s not living up to his potential. Cats also seem to have a run of the motel, which Mike Papageorge discovers as he wanders the hallways. When management finally finds him a room after he tries to sleep on the couch in the lobby, it turns out to be full of cats, causing him to have an allergic reaction. He ends up sleeping under a table in the conference, which leads to his own bizarre engagement with the encounter group.

There are other equally eccentric characters. Early on, two guys who are not in the competition, John (Jim Lewis) and Freddy (Freddy Martinez), claim to be there to watch “them get ready for the end of the world.” One of the contestants, a British chap named Les Carbray (James Curry) of the Alliance team, extols the virtues of three Scotches as the secret to coding. Soon afterwards he smokes joints in John and Freddy’s room. John raises the “military” aspect of the game of chess and talks about government interest in the programming being done by these computer geeks. This induces a sense of paranoia in the stoned Les. He asks John, “Are you trying to recruit me? Are you from the Pentagon?” His sidekick, Freddy, comments, “It’s like my uncle said: ‘War is death, hell is pain, chess is victory.’” As the movie goes on, it gets weirder and weirder, especially when Mike Papageorge returns home to get money, and the film suddenly switches to higher contrast, grainy 16mm color film. Soon after, Peter’s teammate, Beuscher (Wiley Wiggins), shares some startling revelations. Computer Chess culminates in a final scene involving Peter in which we suddenly enter the realm of science fiction.  

Computer Chess has far more plot than is found in Bujalski’s previous films, even though the earlier three features were scripted. For his new one, he only used an eight-page outline. When asked about the difference in approach, Bujalski explains in Cinema Scope: “So in that sense, it was surprisingly similar, because whether you’re working from a worked-out script or just a couple of paragraphs, you still have to make sense of it with the actors; that process is still the same, of talking it through with them and finding out what works for them. In fact, really the only difference was that I had to be better prepared because there wasn’t as thorough a document to rely on if my mind went blank. So I had to have a slightly better sense of what we were doing.”

Computer Chess is wildly inventive, especially in how it cleverly connects the various plotlines that initially appear to be a series of tangents. Bujalski has always been a humorist. The early days of computing and a computer chess tournament provides him with a minefield of awkward social interactions, especially in the form of the film’s two young characters, Peter and Shelly. But, with Computer Chess, Bujalski has moved beyond naturalism into a kind of madcap surrealism that is closer in spirit to Miranda July than it is to Joe Swanberg.

Note: I saw Computer Chess at the 2013 Wisconsin Film Festival in April, where the director was also in attendance, along with Gerald Peary. It’s now available on DVD from Kino Lorber, which is good because it takes a second viewing to appreciate the film’s nuances.

Posted 29 December, 2013

All the Light in the Sky

all-the-light-in-the-sky

Considering how many feature films Joe Swanberg has made at this point in his career, All the Light in the Sky (2013) might be easy to overlook, especially following the recent success of his commercial breakthrough, Drinking Buddies (2013). Inspired by and starring Jane Adams, who will forever be identified with Joy, the inveterate family loser in Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998), All the Light in the Sky tells the story of a middle-aged actress, Marie, who finds herself moderately successful but also very much alone. The visit of her twenty-five-year-old niece from New York, Faye (Sophia Takal), an aspiring actress, causes Marie to experience a minor mid-life crisis when she suddenly realizes that her life is on a downward slope.

Marie’s small Malibu house perched atop the rocks above the Pacific Ocean serves as a kind of metaphor for the precariousness of her situation. As often happens to female actors when they hit a certain age, Marie is starting to get passed over for parts in major studio films, and has to settle for appearing in low-budget indies that have start dates but sketchy financing. The film opens with a shot of Marie waking up to a self-help video. Without a partner to assist her, she struggles to get into a rubber wetsuit in order to paddle out into the ocean on a surfboard for morning exercise. We soon see that neither exercise nor a steady diet of blended health drinks can fully stave off the inevitable passage of time.

Marie is thrilled to see her niece. When she asks Faye about her boyfriend, the younger woman indicates that things are “the best” and the two are planning to get married. Although Marie doesn’t appear to react, this revelation invariably causes her to ruminate on her own life choices. After taking a dip in the ocean, the two women have intimate discussions about female bodies and sexuality. As they change out of their wetsuits, Marie laments that her breasts already sag and suggests that Faye should enjoy her firm ones as long as she can. Marie later confesses that she has always been used to being the object of male desire – “the image that starts the ball rolling” – a point that has been underscored when Faye’s boyfriend (Lawrence Michael Levine) gets her to expose her breasts while talking to him on Skype the night before.

When friends come over, Marie and an older stoner named Dan (Kent Osborne) seem to hit it off, especially when he plays the role of handyman by fixing her wobbly toilet seat and putting up a coat rack. Meanwhile, when they all use a friend’s hot tub, a young director (Ti West) comes on to Faye, but when she indicates that she has a boyfriend, he immediately loses interest, and she later watches him make out with another young woman (Lindsay Burdge). The socially awkward interaction between Marie and Dan seems promising at first, but it results in a one-night stand, as Marie skips out while Dan is still asleep, only to forget her car keys.

All the Light in the Sky is more episodic than plot-driven. It consists of a series of incidents that have thematic links. The intimate conversations between Marie and her niece, however, turn out to be the film’s most compelling material. To Marie, Faye has everything – her youth represents her power – but the younger woman already worries what will happen when she loses that weapon. Marie, on the contrary, knows only too well what it’s like to walk into a room and seem invisible. Marie insists that it’s different for guys. She attributes it to biology that her neighbor friend, Rusty (Larry Fessenden), is drawn to young women who are Faye’s age. Marie confesses to Faye that she always assumed that she would have kids, but concedes that she never met a reliable man whom she thought would make a good father.

At one point, Rusty and Faye sit on the beach watching the sun set at magic hour. He reflects on the fact that the surrounding houses overlooking the ocean are sheer folly – he predicts they’ll be gone in ten years due to global warming. Yet he’s content to live in the moment and enjoy it while he can. If this makes the film sound overly didactic, it actually feels quite the opposite – like we’re simply eavesdropping on two people conversing. Once Faye leaves to return home, Marie and Rusty have dinner together. Afterwards, the two of them lie together on the sofa, and he amuses her by doing Jack Nicholson imitations. When Marie takes umbrage at a number of his actions and comments, he accuses her of being on a “pity-party tear.” She rejects his attempt to turn their friendship into something more.

There’s something so casual about All the Light in the Sky that it feels invented on the spot. Much of the film’s strength derives from the performance of Jane Adams, who, though her character tries hard to remain upbeat, allows occasional flickers of sadness to appear in her eyes. Adams, who shares writing credit, describes the process of making the film in an interview in Entertainment Weekly: “We sent emails back and forth for a long time with ideas – and text messages even. Joe wrote an outline and sent it to me and we made a few adjustments and then he showed up with two actresses, Lindsay and Sophia, and we just started improvising and shooting. It was an exciting process.”

All the Light in the Sky is easily Swanberg’s most thematically integrated film, yet it might also be his most effortless. The flow of conversations seems as natural as the tide we watch going in and out, or the subtle changes in the bright California sunlight that illuminates so many scenes. Swanberg’s film seems to go beyond simple naturalism by confusing the boundaries between the artifice of performance and real life. It involves a delicate sleight of hand that Swanberg has managed to pull off masterfully. Swanberg shot the film himself, which no doubt contributed to the intimate dynamics of the production.

Swanberg has cleverly added an additional element. In researching a role for a film (this one?), Marie interviews a solar engineer (David Siskind), who measures sunlight with a pyrometer.  He later describes the sun as a “middle-aged star,” which, like all things, ultimately goes away. Her conversations with him contextualize Marie’s own situation within the broader context of flux and change in the natural world. The film’s spectacular final image encapsulates the entire film. In wide shot, Marie is rendered as a tiny figure against the ocean and vast expanse of sky, as she paddles out on her surfboard, while birds periodically fly through the frame.

I first saw All the Light in the Sky when it played at the Wisconsin Film Festival last April. It was recently picked up by boutique distributor, Factory 25, and is currently playing at the Cinema Village in New York City. Joe Swanberg has been on a roll this year. He has a new film, Happy Christmas (2014), which is scheduled to play in competition at Sundance in January. And, judging by the success of Lena Dunham’s Girls (2012-), Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2013), and even the new film by the Coen brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), I think it’s fair to say that Swanberg’s influence as a filmmaker has never seemed greater.

Posted 22 December, 2013