In comparison to Andrew Bujalski's earlier films, each of which administers a velvety 16mm texture that seems an obligatory mention when considering his work, Computer Chess proffers a conspicuous technical discrepancy: it was shot on portable video cameras roughly contemporaneous with the early 1980s era it depicts. The result is a pretense of authenticity, as though the film were documented by its very characters and held stillborn for over thirty years.
The conceit works splendidly, as it's in tune with the film's interest in nascent technology and how people interact with it inquisitively. Bujalski has remarked on his choice to shoot on video in exactly every interview done to publicize his film. For one:
I'm sure I encountered these images before, but what lodged in my head and got me excited about it was William Eggleston in the '70s got a Portapak and shot a bunch with his friends in Memphis, and some clips of that turned up in Michael Almereyda's documentary about Eggleston. Shortly thereafter, it was edited and released as something called Stranded in Canton, which is just amazing. Seeing that made me fall in love with the camera and sparked the fantasy of wondering if I could do a narrative on this.1
The Portapack was a Sony invention and a demonstrable innovation when it was produced in 1967, and almost immediately became a staple in the burgeoning field of video art. Eggleston experimented with one shortly thereafter, producing over 40 hours' worth of footage that captured Memphis and its surrounding suburban environs, as well as an unyielding string of lackadaisical passersby stocked up on some psychotropic substance (with its depiction of people in the throes of Quaaludes, it is an unlikely companion to The Wolf of Wall Street). In 2005 the footage was reduced to under two hours and titled Stranded in Canton--available in its entirety on YouTube and appreciable foremost to those keen on Eggleston's signature matter-of-fact aesthetic.
Although I am quite enthusiastically one such appreciator, it is important to note that Eggleston has a measurable share of detractors. What would become Stranded in Canton was shot at a time when he was producing what is considered his seminal work (although his prolificacy has since proven unending). Some of this was pared down to his controversial debut show at MoMa in 1976, titled William Eggleston's Guide. It was the first time color photography was characterized as fine art on such a highfalutin scale, and the subjects - ranging from light sockets, bathroom tiles, to parking lots - were uniformly normal. John Szarkowski, the show's curator, defended the work with perhaps the most authoritative evaluation of Eggleston's essential aesthetic:
It is true that much of the best photography of this century has been created from materials that one would, from an objective, historical perspective, call trivial, for example, the wheel and fender of a Model T Ford, or the face of an anonymous sharecropper, or the passersby on an urban sidewalk; but these materials, even if slight in terms of their intrinsic, specific importance, are nevertheless public and potentially exemplary, and thus available as the carrier of symbolic freight.
As a supplement to Eggleston's body of work, Stranded in Canton is detrimental when held up to this aesthetic. The video image of the Portapack is captured via an infrared tube - in a sense it records heat instead of reflected light - and the images lack the crisp fidelity of 35mm film. His revolutionary work in color photography notwithstanding, Eggleston was considered a pioneer of image fidelity, opting to print his photographs via dye-transfer as opposed to chromogenic prints--the difference, essentially, is that dye-transfer produces truer colors, and is much more expensive. His photos are only datable for the objects and fashion they contain, for technically they are indistinguishable from contemporary work. Stranded in Canton is a stark contrast, and the most unbecomingly old work Eggleston has made.
But the film, which depicts the same scenario from which the bulk of his photography is borne, possesses a context Eggleston's photography often lacks. There is no narrative per say; the film is most descriptively a series of video portraits (Eggleston is himself seen when he hands the camera to someone else). Many of these portraits have a transfixing quality, as they don't encompass dialogue or speech of any manner, rather a moment in which the photographer and subject are suspended in a sort of revelry, quiet and unblinkingly aware of one another.
Eggleston has relented to title or even describe his work. Szarkowski's appreciation notwithstanding, this reluctance furthers a certain magistral and surreal quality that his images inherit, images sometimes confrontational and brimming with an undercurrent of malevolence. To this end, Stranded in Canton is singular and essential, for it gives life to the malevolence.
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