By Linc Leifeste | November 6, 2013
Director: Andrew Bujalski
Writer: Andrew Bujalski
Starring: Kriss Schludermann, Tom Fletcher, Wiley Wiggins, Patrick Riester, Kevin Bewersdorf, Jim Lewis, Freddy Martinez, Cole Noppenberg, Myles Paige, Gerald Peary, James Curry
Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess is one of the oddest movies I’ve seen this year and also the film that’s done more to restore my pride in Austin’s independent cinema scene than any other in recent memory. And from way out on this limb I’ll also add that I think it’s the finest piece of Austin filmmaking since Richard Linklater stormed the cinematic kingdom with Slacker and followed up with the equally impressive Dazed and Confused. Not that there aren’t a lot of good films and performances steadily coming out of Austin (I’m looking at you, Zero Charisma, Kid-Thing, Pictures of Superheroes, Cinema Six, The Puffy Chair and many, many more), but this is something special.
Computer Chess is a mock documentary depicting a 1980 gathering of computer programmers who have come together for an annual computer chess tournament at a roadside hotel, their programs competing each against the other in a round robin tournament of epic geekdom. The winner has the honor of taking on an old-school chess-master (Gerald Peary), who has predicted that a computer will be able to beat him, but not until the year 1985. Also occupying the hotel’s conference spaces on the same weekend is a new age couples therapy conference headlined by an African guru who champions matters of the heart and the value of feel-good touchy-feely exercises.
Just running off my own personal (and cloudy) memory of the era , I will wager that Bujalksi and his cinematographer, Matthias Grunsky, managed to get the look and feel right in the appearance of the characters (among whom I’d include the various computers). The clothing, the glasses, the haircuts, the hotel’s decor, even the look of the black and white film itself, shot on an old Sony tube camera originally made in the early-1970’s, feels right. Additionally, the film captures a time when computers were big and bulky, seen as and feeling like an unnatural intrusion into real life, not yet the tiny but ubiquitous machines whose presence is taken for granted in much of modern life.
The film’s early approach is straightforward enough, showing contestants arriving and taking part in an opening ceremony/panel discussion, giving viewers a sense of the geeky male-dominated (much is made of first-ever female programmer in attendance) subculture we’re being dropped into. The film utilizes a great cast of computer-savvy actors and non-actors to convincingly utter technical lines that sound legitimate even if they’re incomprehensible. But the dialogue is not limited to technological rambling; there are also moments of sharply crafted dialogue such as these lines about mixing programming and scotch: “I’ve got it down to a science, you see. There’s a sweet spot and the sweet spot is three scotches. Four, you’re starting to get a little bit drunk, you’re a bit fuzzy. One or two, and it just doesn’t work. But on three scotches…a man on three scotches could program his way out of any problem in the world.”
But as the film progresses, it becomes more philosophical and less straightforward, honing in on the complexities inherent in desiring that a man-made machine somehow exhibit independent human decision-making processes or at the least accurately predict future decisions of a human opponent in order to best them. These computer programmers are flirting with the development of Artificial Intelligence and it is in this divide between computers passively following their programming and computers actively expressing their own will that the heart of the film lies, adroitly blending philosophy, comedy and poignancy to humanely highlight the fact this this effort is coming from a group of extremely introverted people whose inhibitions and social inabilities are hampering their own ability to meaningfully live their lives.