Film Reviews

Computer Chess Andrew Bujalski

Rating - 8/10

Although Andrew Bujalski's black-and-white off-the-wall period piece is entitled Computer Chess, it is a clever misdirection, a superficial overview of what is ultimately a comically cerebral venture into the tenuous relationship between reality/surreality and technology/humanity in the early 1980s. Through the setup and video camera tricks that mirror the strained or drug-induced mental states of the film's largely nonprofessional participants, comparisons to filmmakers Christopher Guest and David Lynch are ripe; but Computer Chess' mood can just as easily be likened to the crooked comic art of Charles Burns and Daniel Clowes, who unearth the grotesque beneath the surface fabric of outcast social cliques. Bujalski is primarily interested in facilitating an amalgam of emotional psychologies and turning things inside-out; while the artificial intelligence in the film becomes a sentient inquisitor (but not quite the menace that HAL 9000 proved to be), people are reduced to mechanical pawns "lost in a loop."

The film innocuously begins as a scholarly exercise, as programmers convene at a nondescript Midwestern hotel for a weekend computer chess tournament.  Men face the camera, naming their artificially intelligent programs that use algorithms to calculate various moves on a sixty-four-square chess board. In a preliminary lecture instilled with a newscaster-like flair, host Pat Henderson (film critic Gerald Peary) reveals a grand prize of $7500, which is of nominal importance compared to the real reward of the convention's contest - to best the self-proclaimed "chess master," who is none other than the speaker himself. The men and a lone woman on the various teams scramble to articulate their technological innovations before iconoclast Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige) interjects with his thoughts on the futility of the panel-detailing. Unaffiliating himself with a team, he has independently developed and amusingly named his AI CHECKERS, which is unlike the other computer software in that it is not a homogenized, consensus-built creation.

Papageorge is key to tracing and decoding the film's singular surrealistic tendencies, as the man suddenly finds himself without a room reservation, wandering the halls of the hotel (with sporadically appearing cats), hoping someone will provide him a place to sleep. Buljaski's near-vérité documentation to this point takes an artistic detour to floor patterns paired with a 1970s folk tune, "Hole in the Bucket," by Linda Perhacs-like Collie RyanPapageorge first approaches the woman on the MIT team, Shelly Flintic (Robin Schwartz), complementing her on her mere presence amidst the network of men, but she unswervingly refuses his advances. A subsequent confrontation with a weirdly intimate holistic couples' counseling group, who is sharing the hotel's premises, prove that Papageorge's escapades are closer to a transcendental drug trip than a technological revelation that was intended during the convention's duration. But his detours are complemented by many other programmers' late-night pot-and pill-fueled philosophical discourses with topics that range from military intelligence to futuristic matchmaking.

Perhaps the youngest programmer in attendance is the repressed, bespectacled, seemingly sexless Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester). Increasingly the film's focus, his experience is immortalized as an off-kilter coming-of-age story that most effectively evokes the aforementioned comic narratives of Burns and Clowes. Peter incidentally uncovers hidden links between human desire and artificial intelligence the more he plunges into existential questions of the game of chess itself, which become entwined with a chance encounter with two married swingers, Dave and Pauline (Chris Doubek and Cyndi Williams). As members of the new age counseling group, they solicit him, coyly question his motivations and the limitations of his existence; but a scene where he vicariously matches wits with Shelly's STASIA AI through his own Caltech computer program, TSAR, may be even more telling. This awkward rendezvous functions as a sort of precursor to the subject of dating that's rattled off in late-night session- Peter, while socially stunted, is able to connect with the opposite sex through technology. Shelly genuinely seems moved by his investigation into his team's self-defeating AI behavior, later returning to address a new perception of people's motions analogous to chess pieces. Peter, however, is rather stuck in an emotionless loop without entry into his own cycle of maturation - that is, until one his mentors, a brilliant but shady Professor Tom Schoesser (Gordon Kindlmann), abandons him, leaving him adrift without a purpose or subroutine, so to speak.

Indeed, the film defies a predetermined narrative course when Peter's rigid mindset is disputed by the free-spirited swingers, just as Papageorge finds himself leaving the convention for a road trip to his mother's house in search of a wooden money box. The latter fully provokes visual trickery teased in bits and pieces in the prior sections - split-screens, analogue tape sputters, superimpositions - and, in this sequence, an inversion to a grainy, soft-focused color palette. Despite Paige's sometimes calculated delivery, playing against aesthetic, and the integration of looped footage, in these moments the director achieves a genuine improvisatorial impression that recalls the film movement generally known as "mumblecore." Aptly, the Kino Lorber DVD release of the film offers no subtitles, additionally preserving the rather blurry visuals of a primitive personal camcorder. While Computer Chess is a look at antiquated technology, the film arrives at an interesting time as an unintentional companion to Spike Jonze's futuristic glimpse that is HerJonze's project examines the complications that arise when technology facilitates a relationship that is literally split between the limited physical body and the limitless digital world. With Bujalski's film, the prospects are less ambitious and more impersonal due to the primitive level of the technology; nonetheless, the film demonstrates an alarming and dehumanizing property when human perception melds with technology. Offering a complex moral dilemma without being heavy-handed or sometimes even remotely serious, Computer Chess stands as an elaborate cinematic sequence nearly equal to the timeless strategic game itself.