Andrew Bujalski, 2013
#13, 2013 Skandies
I thought I had this movie figured out. Can't afford the latest equipment? Set your film in the past, and make it a mockumentary, so that there's an in-story reason why the video quality is so shitty! Can't afford to build a set or travel to a lot of locations? Have almost the entire story take place at a budget hotel! But then I read some interviews and learned that apparently the filmmakers didn't just use cheap equipment - they used vintage equipment, black-and-white tube cameras from 1969, which were difficult to track down and even more difficult to operate. It seems these cameras produce artifacts (highlight burn-in, squiggling, etc.) that aren't easy to just fake up in your editing software. So, yeah, this movie may be ugly, but by all accounts it's authentically ugly.
So the story here is that the '70s are giving way to the '80s, and in a microcosm of life on the cusp of the new decade, a Super 8 is simultaneously hosting an encounter group for aging flower children and a tournament pitting primitive chess programs against each other. (These programs are algorithmically more sophisticated than, say, ATARI VIDEO CHESS, but visually are less so - the teams from MIT and Caltech, huddled over their Zenith terminals, are simply typing in the moves the opposing program has made, and receiving their own program's reply in text.) Initially, the tournament is the focus of the film - as you'd expect, given the title - and as we're introduced to each team and watch the results of the opening games, it looks like this is going to be something like BEST IN SHOW. But the movie soon loses interest in the tournament, and instead goes off in several different directions. There's the culture clash between the nerds and the hippies, with one programmer treated to a "rebirthing" session and another propositioned by a swinger couple; taking a very different tone, another plot thread involves one team confronted with a program that seems to have gained sentience (quite a feat for something that runs on a PDP-11). Yet a third tone is struck by the thread that follows the travails of a dickish "independent programmer" who runs afoul of hotel staffers, drug dealers, and hordes of cats. And then you have the sequences that devolve into the sorts of cinematic distortions that characterized IT'S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY. As with a lot of works that seem to cram together every single idea the author had, the ideas all end up kind of half-baked. As an ultra-low-budget calling card film, this does compare favorably to a lot of other works in the same category. But that's a bit like looking at the equipment in this movie and saying, "Ooh, a Commodore PET! I'll take that over that other guy's teletype."