It’s probably safe to say that most professional film critics feel quite comfortable scrutinizing movies in darkened theaters. But Gerald Peary, a longtime reviewer for The Boston Phoenix and a slew of other publications, recently made a bold leap to the other side of the camera.
Peary makes his acting debut in a quirky new feature by indie filmmaker and Newton native Andrew Bujalski. It opens Friday at the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge.
'Crazy For Putting Me In The Movie'
Now that "Computer Chess" is finished and opening in theaters nationwide, Peary has a confession: Watching himself as an actor is causing some internal conflict.
"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," he said sitting in his home office with the film playing on his computer.
Peary "the critic" calls "Computer Chess" an extremely weird film. His character is this odd, obsessive, older chess champion who's bent on beating a computer program.
"I actually sometimes forget the name of the character,” Peary said, half-joking. “Oh yeah, my character's name is Pat Henderson. The movie takes place circa 1980. 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."
Henderson presides over a weekend-long computer chess competition designed to identify his ultimate challenger. And remember, this is 17 years before IBM’s Deep Blue defeated chess champion Garry Kasparov
The film’s look is painstakingly retro. The programmers have spot-on period suits, thick glasses and behemoth computers. It’s a geek-fest before being a geek was cool. Director Bujalski shot in black-and-white with a vintage video camera.
Peary calls it an "intentionally ugly" but subtly philosophical art film. And frankly, he still can’t figure out why Bujalski decided to cast him in it. The last time Peary acted was 40 years ago in college.
"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," Peary recalled. "So I could’ve absolutely screwed up the movie. I have been told I’m OK, but Andrew was a crazy guy for putting me in the movie."
A Deliberate Choice
"We were all on the same crazy page," the 36-year-old filmmaker said. "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," Bujalski added.
Peary sees Bujalski’s point, and said the director is not alone.
"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 screen, that fit," Peary said.
At the same time Peary, now 68, believes the character he plays is something of a blowhard, and more vain than he is in real life.
"Some people say, ‘Oh, you’re just playing yourself,' " Peary explained. "I think this is an acting role, but there is a part of me, yes, that’s in the film."
And that’s what Bujalski hoped for. It’s one reason why the director typically uses more non-professional actors in his films than seasoned ones.
"I tend to know better how to get something that to me is fresh and exciting out of them," he said.
The Father Of Mumblecore
As it turns out, Peary the critic has followed Bujalski since his 2002 debut “Funny Ha Ha,” the first "mumblecore" film. Mumblecore got a lot of attention as a new, DIY movie movement defined by low budgets and young, highly educated characters who are awkward and say "like" and "awesome" a lot. Peary was the first to program “Funny Ha Ha” in a university film series for the Boston University Cinematheque.
Even so, I had to ask Bujalski if he was at all wary of having such an erudite film scholar and critic on his set.
"I never felt like he was trying to pull rank by saying, ‘Look, I’m the esteemed film critic here so I know how movies should be,' " Bujalski replied. "But he did take that leap of faith on me and the rest of the crew that we sort of knew what we were doing."
The fact is Peary had no idea what Bujalski was doing during the shoot.
The director never even revealed the film's plot. There was no script — just an eight-page treatment and Bujalski’s verbal prompts before each scene. Peary said the experience reminded him of a film by John Cassavetes, who wrote his own dialogue on the fly. Perhaps it helped that Peary actually was a chess champion in high school.
In one scene, Pat Henderson gives a play-by-play assessment of the competition.
"That’s my major soliloquy of the film,” Peary half-joked, “my 'to be or not to be' speech."
Every Critic's Secret Fantasy
"Every film critic secretly thinks that they could make a movie or star in a movie,” Andrew O’Hehir, a senior writer for Salon, told me on the phone from New York. He published his review of "Computer Chess" last week.
"I would be perfect for the sardonic, intellectual New York jerk, if that’s who you’re looking for,” O’Hehir mused. He said Peary is brave for putting himself out there. "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.”
Peary says he’s been bit by the acting bug and he invites directors looking for an Academy Award to drop him a line. He even has a character in mind.
"'Cause 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,” he described. "I'm willing to play that part, as schmaltzy as it is."
For the time being, though, Peary is just enjoying a flood of praise from his peers.
"To this point, I’ve gotten all rave reviews for my performance — every single review," he said. "So I guess I’ll wait until the first person who talks about how gawky, awkward and miscast I am and see how I feel about that."
And while that hasn’t happened yet, the critic-turned-actor says he's absolutely sure it will.
Director Andrew Bujalski’s “Computer Chess” opens Friday at the Kendall Square Theater. He and critic-turned-actor Gerald Peary will be there Friday and Saturday for a post-screening discussion.
This program aired on July 26, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.