Film Critic Makes Acting Debut In 'Computer Chess'

Jul 26, 2013
Originally published on July 26, 2013 4:25 pm

It’s probably safe to say most professional film critics feel quite comfortable scrutinizing movies in darkened theaters.

But Gerald Peary, a longtime reviewer for the now-defunct Alternative News Weekly, the Boston Phoenix and other national publications, recently made a bold leap to the other side of the camera.

His acting debut is in “Computer Chess”, a quirky new feature by indie filmmaker Andrew Bujalski.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Andrea Shea of WBUR has the story.


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It's probably safe to say most professional film critics feel quite comfortable scrutinizing movies in darkened theaters rather than being in them. But Gerald Peary, a longtime film reviewer, recently made a bold leap to the other side of the camera. His acting debut is in "Computer Chess," a quirky new feature by indie filmmaker Andrew Bujalski. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, WBUR's Andrea Shea has the story.

ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: Now that "Computer Chess" is opening nationwide, Gerald Peary has a confession. Watching himself as an actor is causing some internal conflict.

GERALD PEARY: There's the shock that I am on screen, and then there's the person who jumps back who is the snide critic who watches this with critic eyes.

SHEA: Peary, the critic, calls "Computer Chess" an extremely weird film that's not for everyone. Perry, the actor, plays Pat Henderson, an obsessive chess master, who's bent on beating a computer program. The movie takes place around 1980.

PEARY: This is a moment when real people had a chance against computers. There were still old-time chess champions who challenged computers to play and could even possibly win.

SHEA: Remember, this is all years before Deep Blue, the IBM computer, defeated chess champion Garry Kasparov. In the film, Pat Henderson presides over an intense, weekend-long computer chess competition.


PEARY: (as Pat Henderson) Computer chess goes back even further - to the Mechanical Turk, 1770, the original chess playing machine. It played against and defeated Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte.

SHEA: Everything about the movie "Computer Chess" is painstakingly retro. The programmers have spot-on period clothes, thick-rimmed glasses and behemoth computers. Director Andrew Bujalski shot black-and-white footage with a vintage video camera.

Peary calls it an intentionally ugly, subtly philosophical art film, and, frankly, says he still can't figure out why Bujalski cast him in it. The last time Peary acted was 40 years ago in college.

PEARY: He didn't ask me if I'd ever acted, he didn't ask me if I ever played chess. Those questions never came up. So I could've absolutely screwed up the movie. I have been told that I'm OK. But, Andrew, you're a crazy guy putting me in the movie.

ANDREW BUJALSKI: We were on the same crazy page.

SHEA: That's 36-year-old "Computer Chess" director Andrew Bujalski, speaking from Austin where the film was shot. He says he prefers non-professional actors because they bring something fresh and exciting to their roles.

BUJALSKI: I mean, I needed somebody with some degree of authority. I needed an adult. There was enough of an interesting tension between who he is and who the character is that I thought we could have fun.

PEARY: My wife would say it's all the weird tics that I have, which I am not aware of in life, but I certainly see on the screen that fit.

SHEA: But Peary, now 68, believes the character he plays is vain and more of a blowhard than he is.

PEARY: I hope - some people say, oh, you're just playing yourself. I don't agree with that. I think this is an acting role, but there is a part of me, yes, that's in the film.


PEARY: (as Pat Henderson) I'm on - I'm talking on camera. Could you please move? I'm talking to my camera.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) I don't understand that...

PEARY: (as Pat Henderson) Please talk to my rules committee over here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) This rules committee...

PEARY: (as Pat Henderson) Thank you, John. Thank you.

SHEA: Peary, the critic, has followed Bujalski since he debut in 2002 with "Funny Ha Ha," the first mumblecore film. Mumblecore got a lot of press as a new DIY movie movement, defined by low budgets and young, highly educated characters who say like and awesome a lot. I asked Bujalski if he was at all wary of having such an erudite film critic on his set.

BUJALSKI: I never felt like he, you know, was trying to pull rank and say, well, look, I'm the esteemed film critic here so I know how movies should be. He did take that leap of faith on me and the rest of our crew that we sort of knew what we were doing.

SHEA: Fact is Peary had no idea what Bujalski was up to. The director never told him the film's plot. There was no script, just an eight-page treatment and Bujalski's verbal prompts. Peary wrote his own dialogue on the fly. Perhaps it helped that he really was a chess champion in high school.


PEARY: (as Pat Henderson) There is an interesting tie for second place between Stasia(ph) and Advantage, 3 1/2 points each. Their only hope is that the top two teams are going to drive. I thinks that's very...

That's my major soliloquy of the film, my to be or not to be speech.

ANDREW O'HEHIR: Every film critic secretly thinks that they could make a movie or star in a movie.

SHEA: senior writer Andrew O'Hehir published his review of "Computer Chess" last week.

O'HEHIR: Honestly, I think Gerry makes a pretty commanding on-screen presence, as I think he would be the first to admit. He doesn't look or seem like a natural movie star. You know, he's not going to get involved in a beauty competition with Brad Pitt, I imagine.

SHEA: But who knows. Now, Peary is saying he's bitten by the acting bug, and he invites directors looking for an Academy Award to give him a call. He even has a character in mind.

PEARY: Because this always is a nomination. It's an old guy who is mean and moody and crusty on the outside but has a heart of gold. I'm willing to play that part, as schmaltzy as it is.

SHEA: For the moment though, Gerald Peary and the film "Computer Chess" are enjoying a flood of rave reviews from his fellow critics. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Andrea Shea in Boston.

HOBSON: HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston. I'm Jeremy Hobson.


I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.