Computer Chess (2013) is one of the more hyped indie films of past year or so. As such, I was pretty keen to take a look-see when it began a limited season at Arc Cinema here in Canberra last week.
The title is not some obscure reference that you have to tease out of the film’s content. Awesomely, It really is all about computer chess, taking place at a tournament where boffins do battle to see who’s computer chess program reigns supreme. Production values, sets, costumes and even more creative, underseen elements such as the 4:3 aspect ratio and the fuzzy low res feel of the shooting are paramount in creating a totally immersive period piece. As far as I recall, the year is not specified, but dialogue in the film reveals that it is set in either the late 70s or early 80s. I mentioned the word immersive and it is really accurate actually. I don’t think I have been caught up as much in the ‘period’ of a film as this one for quite some time and director Andrew Bujalski has done a really great job of achieving that. The narrative, like quite a few indie films of recent years, starts off relatively straightforward before becoming almost unhinged as things become totally off-kilter and something goes horribly awry in the world (or at least the prism through which we are viewing the world). The film uses mainly non-professional actors who were proficient in the technical babble that drives the story along. Use of non-professionals often really bothers me, but not here. Here it works really well and adds a realism to the film that would not have been there I suspect had standard actors been used. Something else that works brilliantly is the fact the film incorporates the line “the sweet spot is three scotches” which is essentially my motto in life.
So after all of that, especially the scotch line, it pains me to report that I really was not that fond of Computer Chess. I really like avant-garde, experimental type storytelling. But I always find it a bit hit and miss what will work for you and what will frustrate. Unfortunately this is an example that just really frustrated me. I was really into it when it was playing it a little more straightforward. I thought it might be building to a thriller with a dark ending or even a totally warped take on the underdog sports film. Unfortunately my personal reaction was that it just sort of petered out into oblique nothingness. This was quite possibly amplified because of how enthralled I was by the opening 30 odd minutes. I was so engaged by a film whose composite elements felt like they should be totally boring in isolation. That early period flew by, but the rest really dragged on. Usually films that whirl into arthouse absurdism really do it for me, but I was enjoying what came before the whirl so much that it was a big let-down when that happened. Even very strange, idiosyncratic filmmaking still works best when following a core narrative, which is where this falls down.
I loved the arch-style, but that may bother some. Many will love the randomness that the plot descends into, but that is what bothered me. Definitely more interesting than a vast majority of films out there. Unfortunately just not a real winner for me.
Verdict: Schooner of Carlton Draught