Computer Chess (2013)

Director/Screenwriter: Andrew Bujalski

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By Roderick Heath

Contrary to its long-presumed nature as a purely ephemeral, commercial cult of the new, pop culture today seems powerfully concerned with the study of its own roots. Faced with a panoply of devices for making slicker and slicker creative product, recreating the elusive texture of a rough-hewn past has become a kind of alchemic ambition for many artists. Music recording artists wielding computer software that can make just about any sound known and unknown to humankind, labour now to recreate the tweets and bleeps of the synthesisers their ancient forebears wielded. Some filmmakers, faced with detachment from actual film, have become increasingly preoccupied not just with past genres or movies, but also with recreation of past styles and the specific inflection bygone technological modes brought to cinema. Such is a fascinating turnaround from creators of low-budget and independent cinema who struggled to find parity with mainstream works until new technology allowed artisanal films to look just as good as blockbusters—to reject that quality and delve into the medium as message unto itself. Once, to have shot a film on a crappy video camera would have branded you as a try-hard amateur. Now it’s the latest in craft-art branding.

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Like Pablo Larrain’s No (2012), Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess is built around a singular aesthetic choice to shoot on an old black-and-white video camera, conveying the texture of the era in which the movie is set via a technological conduit that, even at that time, was considered pretty lame. Bujalski’s film moves into a more literal zone as it obeys this instinct, insofar as that its proper subject is once cutting-edge technology from which a new realm of human activity would spring. Its subject is, in part, the creation of a world the film is itself implicitly rejecting.

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Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (2002) is considered the first film of the peculiar niche of independent film wryly dubbed “Mumblecore,” a new variation on some old ideas in cinema. Personages to emerge from that movement of naturalistic, witty no-budget films made for, by, and about young, urban, creative types include Joe Swanberg, Lynn Shelton, brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, and Greta Gerwig, who have moved out into the mainstream without excessive compromise. Swanberg’s work this year, Drinking Buddies, is a small gem that assimilates and liberates marquee names like Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick, without a blink. Bujalski remains distinct from the improvisatory bent of the Mumblecorps in that he always heavily scripted his films, and Computer Chess again takes a different course from his fellows, fashioning a work as determinedly rarefied as anything to emerge from American independent film in the past 20 years. Computer Chess is set around 1980, when the idea that the computer could play a part in people’s everyday lives was starting to look more realistic and yet still undefined. The culture developing around this new machinery was still one that largely attracted fixated brainiacs, absent-minded would-be professors, entrepreneurial savants, and other exotics who can only flourish in carefully controlled environments.

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The film revolves around a chess tournament played by computers, pitting rival programmers, computer models, and software against each other in a stolidly controlled and enclosed environment where petty jealousies, insecurities, asocial traits, and enigmas percolate. The event is held in a distinctly mid-market Austin, Texas hotel, and hosted by chess master Pat Henderson (Gerald Peary), who tries to play the avuncular, good-humoured host, but lets slip a tetchier side occasionally. At the beginning, he berates the crew documenting the tournament on his video camera not to point his camera at the sun. As the competition commences, he brings together several of the major team leaders for a panel discussion about the future chances of a program being good enough to beat him in a match, whilst also exploring some of the past problems in design the teams have encountered. Carbray (James Curry), a bashful, but articulate British software designer, predicts that Henderson will probably win his bet that a computer won’t beat him until 1984, but that he’ll be cutting it close. The highly touted MIT team, led by Roland McVey (Bob Sabiston), was humiliated the year before when their programme, instead of achieving an easy checkmate, got lost in a looping series of checks, which resulted in victory for their rivals from Caltech.

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The Caltech team was led by the now-venerated, but mysteriously absent Todd Schoesser (Gordon Kindlmann), who has left the team in the hands of his assistant, Martin Beuscher (Wiley Wiggins, long-ago hero of Dazed and Confused, 1993) and neophyte Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester), whilst MIT have consulted with grandmasters and recruited the tournament’s first female programmer, Shelly (Robin Schwartz), as part of their team. Another man on the panel, Mike Papageorge (Myles Paige), a dapper but truculent and arrogant “independent programmer,” derides the tournament even as he engages in it, and claims to be looking far beyond the petty preoccupations of those about him. Papageorge’s comeuppance proves rapidly forthcoming, as he learns his room booking hasn’t been recorded. With the hotel full up, he’s left wandering the hallways at night, and lacking any cash, trying to find someone who’ll give him a place to crash. He alienates other teams and even the friendly neighbourhood drug dealers when he takes some of their stash but can’t pay for it. Most of the programmers are engaged in low-level drug abuse, taking uppers to sustain them through marathon coding sessions and bug hunts in their digital children. The introverted Peter is faced with trying to rescue the Caltech team’s flagging fortunes as their computer keeps performing disastrously in matches.

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Computer Chess examines the little whorl of subcultures and period details it encompasses less with the cheap gaudery of nostalgia than with the finicky exactitude of anthropology. The haircuts, the clothes, the bland environs of the hotel and its surrounds, the boxy cars, all are employed with fidelity and transcend the usual chuckle-worthy recreations for retro send-ups, becoming rather part of a project of holistic depth. Bujalski offers an undoubted sense of kinship between fashioners of off-road artistry like himself and these pioneer mongers of technological ingeniousness, seeing the common roots of obsessiveness, curiosity, and alienation from the imperatives of a larger “real” world. The alternative-capitalist triumphalism portrayed by a films like The Social Network (2010) and Jobs (2013), in which asocial geniuses become world conquerors, are still scarcely conceivable, distant horizons. The programming world portrayed here is wedged between the counterculture and technocrats, neatly trimmed institution men and hairy, dishevelled hobbits fond of puffing weed coexisting in this realm, unified by their devotion to the obscure beauty of code. Only Papageorge seems to have an eye on the necessity, even in the computer business, to project authority and professionalism, but he’s constantly thwarted by his overweening sense of superiority unmatched by a sense of salesmanship and charm.

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Whilst the tournament seems a clear-cut affair, zones of mystery, ambiguity, and even outright surrealism begin to open around it. Rumours of military interest in these seemingly benign, almost inane inventions and their possible uses add to undercurrents of paranoia. Schoesser’s absences and distracted manner give some credence to this suspicion, as does the presence of John (Jim Lewis), one of a pair of hotel guests who sell drugs to the programmers, a burly man who chuckles in sardonic amusement at the programmers whom he seems to regard as an the alien species even whilst probing them about potential military applications. He reports to the cameraman that he’s come to see “the end of the world” in the making, and in a way, he’s right, if not in the way he expects. Meanwhile, Peter seems to be spiralling down the rabbit hole trying to understand the Caltech computer’s erratic behaviour. When Schoesser does finally turn up, he explains to Peter that the new programme is supposed to learn as it plays, absorbing new methods of play. Theoretically, it should adapt quickly to the other programmes, but instead, it seems almost wilfully bad. Bewildered and increasingly spaced out by his all-night coding sessions exacerbating his already deep introversion, Peter takes the Caltech machine to Shelly’s room in the middle of the night to test out a theory that proves correct: having Shelly rather than the MIT computer play his, the Caltech programme finally starts working properly. It wants to play against humans.

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Have the Caltech crew failed to create a great computer chess programme, but instead created artificial intelligence? Or are they just so strung out, paranoid, and distracted that Peter and Beuscher are imagining things? Henderson mentions earlier the original “chess-playing machine,” the Mechanical Turk, an apparently brilliant device that defeated Napoleon at chess; its secret was that a human chess player was hidden within it. Now will humans have machines hidden inside them? Schoesser, in explaining the program’s workings to Peter, says that “everything is not everything—there’s more,” a seemingly contradictory piece of guff that accidentally reveals potentials beyond what he and his colleagues have imagined, opening the gates into unknown realms of intelligence and discovery. Bujalski stages a witty quote from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as he offers a computer’s eye view of two humans talking to each other, except where in Stanley Kubrick’s film, the sentient computer was defensively vigilant about the threat of his human charges, here the new artificial intelligence seems frustrated by how stilted and pedantic its human creators are and begins steering them toward new paradigms. Later, Beuscher nervously tells Peter about an exchange he had with the computer late at night when it seemed to start interacting sarcastically with him before prodding him to “ask your questions.” Beuscher asked, “Who are you?”, and the computer showed him a brief picture of an embryo in utero, before switching itself off. Rather than offering either maniacal super-intelligence as per scifi cliché or the benign boxes of helpfulness we’re used to, Bujalski intimates a Frankensteinlike aspect to the creation of computers, but more faithful to the original theme of Mary Shelley insofar as the creations map, mimic, and invert the faults and qualities of their creator. The good-humoured irony at the heart of Computer Chess is the notion that computers translate their programming into an urge to create connections, between each other and between their creators, the people who use them. It could be argued that the film is also a jokey metaphor for the roots of the internet age; with its billion-fold opportunities for linkage, one of the programmers only hesitantly ventures that one day computers may be used for dating.

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For added piquancy, Bujalski turns the hotel into a strangely nebulous zone that acts like the programming limits of the games themselves, complete with mysterious glitches that suddenly puncture holes in reality. During one of his midnight rambles in search of a place to sleep, Papageorge encounters a single cat reclining in the laundry room. Soon the cats start proliferating, like bad patches of software. Papageorge has an allergy to the cats, and when he’s finally given a room, he picks up the hooker who constantly hovers outside the hotel and takes her there, only to find the room filled with cats, preventing him from entering. At first it seems like the cats are Papageorge’s hallucination, stemming from his sleep-deprived state, except that later, Henderson passes on the hotel’s apologies for the cats infesting the place. Papageorge is forced to continue his search for a spot to sleep, and camps out in the convention room. But this place has its own infestation: the hotel is splitting the use of the room between the chess competition and an encounter group run by an alleged African guru Keneiloe (Tishuan Scott) for his congregation of middle-aged hippies. Papageorge’s ordeal by humiliation thus reaches an apogee as he’s dragged into the group’s games, undergoing a ritualised rebirth.

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Bujalski’s casting of a large number of nonprofessional actors, many from either the film world (Peary, Schwartz, Riester) or the computer world (Curry, Kindlmann) points to a neorealist sensibility, and indeed it gives the film its peculiar texture of veracity, particularly with the likes of Peary’s wonderfully awful MC work. But for all its esoteric flavour, Computer Chess has real and recognisable roots in a very Hollywood genre, the screwball comedy. The basic situation of a collection of weirdoes gathered in a hotel, indeed two different and irreconcilable kinds of weirdo, readily calls to mind films starring the Marx Brothers or Cary Grant. It’s easy to picture Papageorge in another era played by Grant, increasingly frustrated by his inability to find a place to sleep, a problem Grant indeed went through in Howard Hawks’ I Was a Male War Bride (1949). The gently affectionate mockery of nerds who need to get in touch with their inner troglodyte calls to mind other Hawks comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1938), Ball of Fire (1941), and Monkey Business (1953), in all of which the breakdown of order and scientific rationality is correlated to the impudence of nature’s version of the science the heroes try to corral. Peter and Shelly’s meet geek threatens to move into ’80s teen comedy or Jerry Lewis territory. Bujalski channels these influences tellingly, though whereas another kind of order underlies that surface anarchy in Hawks, here things are far more complicated. Irreconcilable systems are blurring. Artificial and organic intelligence are meeting and melding. Biology has been invaded. A cybernetic age is beginning.

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Computer Chess also reminded me strongly of some quintessential films from the era in which it’s set, such as Dark Star (1974) and Repo Man (1984)—incidentally constructed, but richly composed works with a similarly, cheekily oddball spirit. Indeed, Bujalski seems almost nostalgic for the blurring of the present and the future in those films, for Computer Chess recreates that feeling, but in what is, for the filmmaker, the past. It has hints and hues, too, of Jacques Tati’s comedies of modernism and Brian De Palma’s formative works, whilst the black and white and lack of artifice call to mind early Jim Jarmusch. Whilst evoking such classic models, however, Computer Chess dives into the argot of the recent past. The video shooting facilitates this, but there’s more to it than that: a lot of contemporary directors have nostalgically referenced bygone modes of filmmaking, for example, J.J. Abrams’ much-noted efforts to recreate the flavour of ’70s cinematography, but Bujalski’s references are far less common. He tries to recreate the tone of no-budget documentaries, public TV specials, corporate training videos, and most particularly, the sort of filmmaking that came out of regional and university workshops, from a very specific era. The photography gets pixelated, blown out, and even riddled with hazy, smeared impressions from bright lights (not for nothing does Henderson warn the cameramen).

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Some of Bujalski’s forebears in smart, independent cinema, including Jarmusch and John Sayles, have often been tagged less as film minds than writers with cameras, a problematic attitude that sometimes seems aimed at ghettoising filmmakers who try to do as much as they can with limited production resources. But in spite of the self-imposed technical limitations that endow this film with its lo-fi look, Bujalski’s framing and cutting are lissom, lively, and laced with a wide repertoire of film devices utilised in a deadpan and simple fashion—iris shots, abstruse framings, delicate tracking shots, split-screen effects, flashbacks, looping shots, even a truly peculiar special effect towards the end—that evince a sophisticated filmmaker trying archly not to seem like one. Lightly surreal humour and images that seem to have stumbled out of cheap, but inventive scifi TV shows coexist with nonchalant realism. The setting, an incredibly bland hotel and concrete surrounds, offers not the slightest photogenic purchase, but, of course, it helps the precision of the misè-en-scene in presenting a land beyond taste and character, like the starting point for an alternative timeline in which machines could well take over because human beings have become deadly dull.

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Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Computer Chess is based in Bujalski’s contemplation on the roots of one part of the contemporary zeitgeist. He’s aware that most artists have, so far, generally failed to contemplate just how much the computer and internet age have created a new epoch. He delves into this new age, a very different kind of new age than the one conceived during the ’60s counterculture era, and yet stemming in part from aspects of that ideal. Bujalski focuses on a time when culture was in a state of flux after the ructions of the 1960s, and not doing it via the sexy story of some zillionaire like Steve Jobs, who did indeed provide a link between the ’60s era and the dawn of the personal-computer age in the’80s.

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The technocrats of the tournament, living through supposedly serene, digitised simulacrums, and the encounter group faithful searching for immediate, sensitising tactile and experiential awareness, are directly contrasted, but also identified as similarly weird and interesting alternative worlds within worlds. Both have characters capable of speaking derisively about them, as Papageorge mocks the comp and one of the encounter group readily concedes Keneiloe might just be an entertaining fraud. There is mindfulness here of how both systems have apparently opposite worldviews but shared roots, and are linked by a hunger for new ways of experiencing and ordering the world. During the film’s most uncomfortable, sustained comic sequence, a couple from the encounter group, Dave (Chris Doubek) and Pauline (Cindy Williams) try to sell Peter on having a threesome with them. Pauline prods Peter with appeals to expand his mind and range of experience from the narrowness of his technological obsessions, to which Peter ripostes that the possible permutations of positions in his computer chess programme are staggeringly large, and his world of the mind equally vast, so Pauline’s rhetoric is in a way close-minded. Peter flees the couple in a panic, understandably, as Bujalski cunningly roots the discomfort of the scene not so much in the sexual offer, or even their disparate ages, so much as the weirdly parental method of seduction Pauline tries. Peter remains blocked, however, even as he catches Shelly’s eye. She instead has to bat off Papageorge’s entreaties, like his hilariously self-congratulatory chat-up line: “I’d be willing to bet that you and I are the only ones here who even understand that programming has a feminine side.” This aspect of Bujalski’s satire, the perception of the tech world’s awkward record of gender inclusivity, is perhaps the timeliest, although his touch is light: Shelly, like Peter, is an archetypal nerd.

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Most of Computer Chess’s first two-thirds is fairly straightforward, and only in the endgame, as per the early discussion, does the program begin to break down; Bujalski achieves the sense of disordering in the way he puts the film together, revealing the genuine cinematic intelligence at work here. Papageorge’s program lives up to his reputation for avant-garde thought, but still fails to best Carbray’s more conventional, reliable invention, and the Brit takes out the competition. Whilst Papageorge and Peter vie to be protagonist in their sharply contrasting ways of being computer savants, Carbray emerges as the quiet hero, with his successful program, his intellectually curious and defensive engagements with John, and his likeably old-school approach to mood-altering: he announces that he’s scientifically determined that “a man on three scotches could program his way out of any problem in the world.” John has his own opinion, as he berates the victory as “Goliath beating David.”

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Having clearly counted on winning the tournament for the prize money, Papageorge is left broke and reduced to searching his house for cash to pay off John’s partner Freddy (Freddy Martinez) for drugs he gave him, rushing back and forth whilst his mother regales Freddy with a biblical reading. Finally, Papageorge is caught in a looping segment of the film itself, which has shifted into blurry Super 8 colour as the setting has changed. Bujalski equates Papageorge’s existential situation with the faults of the old MIT computer, doomed to circle endlessly because of his own blind spots. Henderson takes on Carbray’s computer for an exhibition match, but finds that a problem with the booking means that the convention hall belongs to the encounter group. The group agree to share the space and become so interested, they crowd in on Henderson, who suffers a meltdown when the group reach out to absorb him into their number as a fellow sufferer in the new age. Peter seems on the verge of grand, new discoveries, both personal and technical, when he learns that Schoesser has indeed ceded the team’s work to the military for exploitation. He accidentally leaves open a window, and rain gets to the team’s computer, ruining it.

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Peter is then left alone and in disgrace, unable to connect properly to Shelly, with her attention newly sensitised by Peter’s experiment and her own observations of how the people at the tournament move like chess pieces themselves in systems play for the sake of defence and offence. She and her team leave. Like Papageorge, Peter finally picks up the hooker, as if making a logical-minded attempt to purge his hang-ups and inexperience. The hooker strips off her clothes and sits on the bed beside him; Peter is carefully framed, downcast and quite literally oppressed by the drab, lifeless décor of the hotel. But then the hooker casually removes the side of her head, revealing flashing lights and gadgets within.

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Perhaps Peter is the one hallucinating now, or perhaps he’s having a vision of the future when the technical and the human will conjoin, or merely wishing that humans could be opened up and rewired to work properly like his machines can. Either way, it’s a marvellous climactic image that reminded me of the conclusion of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), a sudden swerve into outright strangeness that signals things wonderful and frightening are happening, and the way we perceive reality is shifting. It’s undoubted that Computer Chess, like Berberian Sound Studio from earlier this year, a film with distinct similarities of focus and aesthetics, will prove a huge turn-off for many in its wonky form and mannerisms. But at a time when empty junk is passed off as game-changing cinematic brilliance, I found Bujalski’s wealth of ideas and quirk a tonic, and if not the best, Computer Chess is perhaps the most original American movie I’ve seen in 2013.

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