The fuzzy, shades-of-gray black and white of the decades-old Sony video camera that director Andrew Bujalski used to shoot Computer Chess is a worm tunnel through the space-time continuum, shooting us straight to the late '70s or early '80s. We arrive at a computer chess tournament to which teams of artificial-intelligence programmers from places like MIT and Stanford have lugged bulky CPUs and monitors. It's an annual milestone in the race to develop a computer that can beat a human chess master. It's also, as one of the spectators puts it, the beginning of “the end of the world”—and the dawn of the one we inhabit now, in which we take it for granted that computers can do a whole lot of things better than we can.
Bujalski rejects the easy drama of the competition as a focus of the film, lingering less on who's beating whom than on the kitschy awards ceremony that crowns the winner—literally—and the odd encounters and awkward alliances that unspool after hours. Threading through the movie and sometimes intersecting with each other in unexpected ways are a few loosely developed storylines and recurring bits, including a budding nerd romance (or is it?) between the sole “lady” programmer (Robin Schwartz, sweetly geeky) and an equally shy boy from a rival team; the tension between hotshot freelance programmer Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige) and just about everyone else; Papageorge's search for a room to crash in after the hotel loses his reservation; and the ludicrous exercises performed by a couples therapy group that's also in the hotel for the weekend, whose members interact with the programmers in sometimes alarming ways.
The camera wanders through the hallways or into rooms like another contestant, seemingly happening upon people and then staying with them a while. That random quality and the deadpan awkwardness of the main characters gives the whole thing a comic quality, but Computer Chess is sneakily observant and surprisingly resonant.
Brooklyn is a fish tank full of naked artists, happy street musicians, cool rollerblade dancers and basketball players, and endless riffs on the theme of self-expression vs. selling out in Swim Little Fish Swim, a portrait of the artist as a (very) young woman as inchoate as its main characters. What comes through strongest is its Woody Allen-esque treatment of Brooklyn, complete with golden light, beautiful young women, glamorous locations and plenty of appealingly tortured—or insufferably neurotic, depending on your point of view—artists.
Lilas (Lola Bessis, who also co-wrote and co-directed) is a girlishly beautiful art-world princess from Paris, the daughter of a famous artist and a graduate of what her mother calls “the finest art school in Paris.” Lilas expects the world to embrace her and it must not disappoint much, judging by the bitchy torrent of self-pity she unleashes the one time someone says no to her. Her glossy self-absorption meets its match in Leeward (Dustin Guy Defa), the passive-aggressive husband half of a stunningly uncommunicative American couple she crashes with for a week or two. As Leeward and Mary (Brooke Bloom) pull hard in opposite directions, their three-year-old daughter (Olivia Durling Costello, feisty and only occasionally self-conscious) caught in the middle, Lilas inserts herself between them. Oblivious to Mary's mounting irritation, she nudges Leeward to spend all his time being a capital-A artist (he makes quirky music on toy instruments) rather than earning money to help support his family.
Bessis and her filmmaking and life partner, Ruben Amar, shot the film while living in Brooklyn for a year or so. As Bloom put it after the Tuesday screening, there's “kind of a foreign romanticism” in their film. “This reminds me of the thing—what's the word for it?—when you romanticize a place so much that actually being there is disappointing,” Bloom said.
While Swim Little Fish Swim romanticizes the free-spirit/starving-artist side of New York, Loves Her Gun paints the city as an obstacle course of creepily deserted streets, masked muggers, and dismissive cops. Fortunately for Allie (Trieste Kelly Dunn), the members of the quirky band she went to hear just before her mugging invite her to go on the road with them, and she finds sweet oblivion in the limbo of their low-rent tour. Then they get home to Austin and, though still taking a vacation from her own life, Allie finds herself increasingly stressed out and isolated, unable to tune out the violence she encounters or return the love and friendship she is offered.
Her own descent into violence is so unsensationalized that it comes as a shock to see where it leads, at the same time that director Geoff Marslett and his co-writer, Lauren Modery, make it feel inevitable. Little things like the bang of a car door Allie slams on her way to work, or her seemingly offhand question about the security of the windows in the house where she's staying, infuse the story with a steady undercurrent of unease. This is Marslett's first live-action film (his SXSW 2010 favorite, Mars, was animated), and it's a promising start.
The film portion of South by Southwest runs from March 8—March 16.