Thursday, December 19, 2013

Review: Inside Llewyn Davis vs. Computer Chess

Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers' latest release, is an evocation of the early 60's New York folk scene, told through the misadventures of also-ran folksinger Llewyn Davis. The wintry colors and period clothes and cars take us back, but we are clearly in the hands of storytellers who like to mess with their characters, and thereby with us. Davis can't catch a break - the single he performs on as a session man goes on to be a hit, but in his desperation for cash he's already signed away his claim to royalties. He tries to hawk his records, tries to get money out of his producer, cadges a series of couches and floors to sleep on, takes a pointless trip to Chicago, and basically burns every bridge, some while he's in mid-crossing. The cast of Coen oddballs exists primarily to enable the hell he's made of his life, but for all the focus on his sad puppy eyes, we can't see inside.

Andrew Bujalski's 2013 release Computer Chess is set in the mid-seventies. Teams of computer geeks crowd a southern California hotel for their annual man vs. machine chess competition, bringing the large clunky hardware that was state-of-the art a mere 30 years ago, and huddling to strategize. Meanwhile an encounter group is lodging in the same hotel (with overlapping use of the conference room) for activities which include chants, group embrace, sensory awakenings... Anyone who remembers the seventies will not believe this movie was made in 2013 - no anachronistic spin spoils the effect. Shot in black and white with hand-held home movie cameras, the film offers not the Coens' ironic glib hi-def rendering of Greenwich Village, but an affectless depiction of nerds and encounter groupies.

Computer Chess explores a theme central to modern life without our present-day suspicion and defensiveness toward technology. Rather, we are offered the we're-all-in-this-together early collaboration of programmers with computers. These nerds are frustrated equally by the complexity of the problem they have set themselves, and the machines' inadequacy. Though they generally agree that in another ten years a computer will beat a Grandmaster, they despair at their programs' apparent stupidity.

Some of the chess hangers-on are after something else, deeply paranoid about whose money is behind the more successful teams. Mike Papageorge, a scam artist, insults the organizer, pretends he had a room reservation, then after being rebuffed by the hotel clerk, tries to cadge floor-space in every competitor's room and ends up sleeping under a conference room table. There he wakes to the ministrations of the encounter group, who guide him through a rebirthing.

The central character of Computer Chess is Peter, a young nerd whose combination of intellect and innocence attracts those around him to make confessions and advances, neither of which he wants. Can computers wonder about the soul? Are the vast number of possible chess moves really just a speck in comparison to human potential? These are not questions he would have chosen to ponder, but it's certain he will leave the competition a changed young man.

Llewyn Davis is a depressive combination of serial sponger Papageorge and young Peter, in whom others look to discover the parts of themselves they doubt and dislike. But unlike Davis, who gives a blank look to the Chicago record producer who asks bluntly, "Who's inside Llewyn Davis?" the characters in Computer Chess know who they are and what they want, and strive on, undeterred by failure. Davis, lost in the haze of his own compounded misery, cannot see out to get out.  

The Coen brothers' people are Characters, but Bujalski's characters are People.
In my grading system,
Computer Chess rates an A+ 
Inside Llewyn Davis gets a B-