Saturday, November 9, 2013

Computer Chess

Grade: 89/A-

Andrew Bujalski has to be one of the most bizarre cinematic innovators of all time. In 2002, with his debut film Funny Ha Ha, Bujalski redefined lo-fi with 16mm stock, seemingly-improvised, wonderfully awkward scenes, and a slice of life structure, giving birth to the mumblecore movement. Bujalski stayed within the movement for his next two films, Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax, but his latest film, Computer Chess, is a new beast altogether. Shot on a 1969 Sony video camera, Computer Chess looks and feels quite unlike anything put on screen before. It is almost certainly the year’s strangest film, but also one of its most fascinating.

The film takes place in the early 1980s at a small hotel, where groups of programmers from colleges around the country gather every year for a computer chess programming competition. Their programs play each other’s programs, with the winning team earning $7,500 and a chance to play judge and chess wizard Pat Henderson (film critic/scholar Gerald Peary).

The competitors all face different trials and tribulations at the hotel. The Cal Tech team, whose previous machine won the year before, finds their program inexplicably choosing suicidal chess moves during matches. One of their players, Peter (Patrick Reister), deals with his awkwardness and inability to communicate with other people. MIT programmer Shelly (Robin Schwartz) deals with being the only woman at a gathering of socially awkward young men. And arrogant independent programmer Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige) finds himself without a room to stay in, unless he wants to take one with a shitload of cats in it.

One could broadly call Computer Chess a sort of Dazed and Confused for nerds ( Wiley Wiggins, Dazed’s Mitch, plays a supporting role). Both films have a discursive nature, both are ensemble-driven, and both are funny but more thoughtful than they might appear at first glance. But that doesn’t do an adequate job of describing how weird the film is. Bujalski takes the film down many roads and tributaries filled with halting conversations and characters theorizing about the future of artificial intelligence- whether we influence it or it influences us. And that’s before the surreal sci-fi elements start to pop up, including a question of what, exactly, is causing Cal Tech’s computer to act up.

Yet the film’s constant strangeness is inviting rather than alienating (at least for more adventurous audience members). Bujalski’s formal experimentation yields a project that feels like a time capsule, a forgotten tape of a particularly odd weekend with the brightest and most awkward minds of the early digital age. The way the characters fail to relate to each other is both consistently funny (especially when a new age-y group arrives and starts interacting with some of the least comfortable programmers) and poignant in the way it captures how the socially awkward (and likely Asperger’s-afflicted) failed to interact as they developed technology that would both facilitate and break down communication. There’s nothing like Computer Chess coming around again anytime soon, and that makes it essential.

This film is available on Netflix Instant.

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