Computer Chess is a strange piece: it’s a weird, warped, monochromatic feature from Andrew Bujalski that features a plethora of geeky characters who have gathered in a large hotel for a computer chess program fight to the death. Part comedy, part improv drama and part I-really-don’t-know-what, the film begins with an odd, deliberately drawn-out introduction to the annual tournament by a chess grandmaster (Gerald Peary) and surprisingly ends as a paranoid mumblecore sci-fi thriller, the director riffing on the idea of technology besting the human mind and bringing to mind Darren Aronofsky’s lo-fi debut Pi. Much of it is doom-laden and suggests the kind of sinister, sentient CPU behaviour beloved of serious sci-fi filmmakers, yet this is also a film that regularly amuses with its lo-fi, Linklater-esque, dialogue-heavy vignettes (I’m thinking Slacker in particular). It’s a bit of a curate’s egg, if truth be told, but certainly unusual.
It’s 1980. Collars are wide. Trousers are flared. Haircuts are bad. Shirts are worse. A few panelists address a room full of fairly-bored looking contestants, many of whom we will later see dragging their giant, unwieldy computers around the hotel. Their interactions in the hotel bar and in various rooms are stiff, awkward, and there’s just one woman present, an MIT student who is repeatedly singled out by the MC for comment as if she were an objet d’art. To highlight the strangeness of these computer nerds Bujalski has another unusual group of people occupying the hotel’s conference rooms at the same time: fittingly, in a story about computers gaining power and gearing up to leave their human masters trailing behind, they are members of the Human Potential Movement.
Straight away it’s apparent that one of Bujalski’s intentions here is to reclaim the word ‘nerd’, or at least remind people that nerds used to look a certain way; in the director’s own words ‘ … in the 21st century, plenty of computer programmers have nice haircuts and go to the gym and drive cool cars. But the “nerds” of yesteryear, certainly those at the vanguard of AI were, I believe, a different breed. I think of these early programmers almost as a sect of monks, absorbed and dedicated utterly to their mission, to a degree that the rest of the world must have seemed like so much noise and distraction to them.’
The attendees at this computer chess tournament are outcasts who are suddenly, implausibly, thrown together. (The actors playing them are mainly unknown, but I recognised Wiley Wiggins, excellent as Mitch Kramer in Linklater’s Dazed And Confused twenty years ago.) They are obsessed by this relatively-new technology and only truly appear to be relaxed when discussing the advanced technical points of their work as programmers with one another. Think Steve Wozniak rather than Steve Jobs and you’re almost there. A programmer named Peter begins to suspect his computer has a mind of its own, and is deliberately ‘upping’ its chess game when it is pitted against a human, but there’s not much else in the way of plot.
Old school geekery it may be, but Bujalski manages to capture a sense of the thrill of computing, as well as the feeling of limitless possibility being tentatively explored; presumably the real life versions of these characters will have experienced the same back in the early days of home computing. There is excellent attention to detail, and the costume designer Colin Wilkes must get a mention for his thorough work; DP Matthias Grunsky filmed everything using a Sony AVC-3260, originally made in the early 1970s and likely used at events just like the fictional one depicted here, which also helps to create the movie’s confident sense of time and place (though I did find myself yearning for a bit of contrast; the picture at the top of this post has been enhanced as the film itself is deliberately flat and grey). A quiet, strange, low budget oddity with a baffling final few minutes; I liked it.
Directed by: Andrew Bujalski.
Written by: Andrew Bujalski.
Starring: Patrick Riester, Wiley Wiggins, Myles Paige, Robin Schwartz, Gerald Peary.
Cinematography: Matthias Grunsky.
Editing: Andrew Bujalski.
Running Time: 91 minutes.