Thursday, January 2, 2014


Maths lets you comprehend infinity. Chess lets you play with it. I'm hopeless at maths and with chess my skill ends at enjoying moving the pieces around. Andrew Bujalski, I suspect, knows something of both. He is inclined to show science as magic but it feels like that's for the rest of us.

It's 1983 and the infancy of computers as everyday objects has begun. Teams from the universities and their big bucks backers have gathered in a mid-west hotel for a chess tournament only this time it's machine versus machine. Hey wake up! Ok, you're not being helped with that. We open on one of the driest panel discussions imaginable as the members talk with ingrown voices about what they expect of the the contest. Sportsnight this aint. But nor is it a high-calorie science fest either. We're hearing about concepts that the general public lived without. 

The image is made of the condensed grey light of Sony's U-matic video standard. It was used for over a decade for news gathering and anything on tv that wasn't film (ie most of it). Think old Dr Who episodes and you've got it except that this is also black and white which makes the opening discussion (like the film's opening gambit) a love or leave affair. I would suggest learning to love it because if you do you will get yourself through one of the most enjoyably original movies you are likely to see in the next year.

First, let's ditch the competition. This is not a triumph of the genius story so the playing is left over the shoulders of the participants in a room crowded with outsize technology and casually dressed boffins who look as though they sweat essence of manilla folder. There will be no race to the ribbon here and even an apparent loss of narrative altogether. There is, however, something far better.

One of the programs is acting strangely. Peter, one of its developers describes it as suicidal. He isn't getting any sleep because the problem won't let him. When he tries an experiment with a rival team's machine he discovers something eerie. This is later corroborated in odd fashion by one of his fellow team members who had a very odd encounter with the software at an earlier stage of development.

Meanwhile, reporter Mike Papageorge whose booking for the tournament seems to have been nabbed by one of the hotel's many cats moves around looking for a place for sleep and after hours fun like an animated chessman. His adventures are variously funny and tiring.

Meanwhile, a group of ageing touchyfeely neo-hippies have booked into one of the main conference rooms also dibbed by the tournament. Their inevitable encounters with the developers range from hilarious to creepy.

And then instead of a big finish with a winner and losers we get some very strange and quiet wow moments. Whoever it was who compared this to Kubrick wasn't talking about the production values, he (think it was a he) had his eye on some very compelling concepts that have to do with the way we relate to our machines and how we only dreamed we could decades ago.

The spooky hooker who appears like a vague trick of the light outside the hotel foyeur is a case in point. Her fro-perm guzzles the light as she passes beneath it and for tiny moments she seems as golden as anyone in black and white is going to get. This would work all by itself but there are plans for the figure in the same way that a really intriguing novel has plans.

Bujalski whose enjoyable mumblecore fests Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation delighted me with their energy and non-cloying whimsy. Here he has extended himself beyond anything I would have imagined from those earlier films. This is great sci fi the way that Primer is great sci fi (and how Upstream Color just might be). To the Kubrick comparison I'd add an easy Cronenberg (Peter Bishop even looks like a teenage D.C.)  So you have to dig a little deep to find it but you will find it.

No comments:

Post a Comment