Computer Chess (London Film Festival 2013)
The mumblecore genre’s lo-fi aesthetic doesn’t quite hold the same novelty as when the movement began. Computer Chess dials back the production even further for a unique, retro look that also fits the dry, almost sci-fi story.
Andrew Bujalski shoots the entire film with a 1969 video camera, creating black-and-white images characterised by the outdated technology’s unpredictable flickers and distortions. Subsequently, the 1970s atmosphere is more authentic than cinematic – as opposed to the digital de-colourisation of The Artist or the gorgeous romanticism of Tabu.
Computer Chess ostensibly follows a tournament for computer chess programmers, set about 30 or 40 years ago; machines are still incumbent, while the geeky enthusiasts struggle to elucidate their futuristic dreams. Set in a hotel, the gathering compete over a weekend by pitting their computer programmes against each other, hoping to win a trophy, cash prize and chance for a machine versus human match – the human being Pat Henderson, a grandmaster played by real life lecturer Gerald Peary.
The rivalry between the programmers and machines begins far earlier, with much of the comedy emerging from awkward social behaviour that extends into incompetent chess software. One participant drolly complains to his teammate, “In this game you’re supposed to defend the king, not send it to its death?”
My expectations of Computer Chess were mixed, given I’m not that much of a fan Bujalski’s signature, Funny Ha Ha, but was intrigued by the unusual premise. For much of the first half, the dialogue runs like a comedy of manners: incoherent computer nerds squabble over their programmes, with the calculated naturalism that separates Bujalski from the rest of the mumblecore filmmakers. However, like an actual game of chess, periods of boredom seep in when you’re waiting for someone to make a move you can already anticipate.
That’s where Bujalski’s Najdork Variation reveals itself as an Alekhine gun.
Computer Chess turns into several surreal areas, while staying loyal to the unusual, or lack of, cinematography. One participant, Michael (Myles Paige), is thrown into a running joke with Kafkaesque undertones, whereby he can’t find a spare hotel room that isn’t inhabited by cats. In another bedroom, Peter (Patrick Riester) is confronted by swingers and realises he can only relate to humans as chess pieces. At one point, a computer begins to question its user about the meaning of life, even asking, “Where is your soul?”
It’s hard to pigeonhole Computer Chess as so much happens, despite or because of its minimalist approach. I’m sure it requires at least a second viewing to properly unravel. The dry humour playfully drags out the competitiveness between the men (and one self-conscious woman) and their creations, not just through the chess tournament; the computers are arguable more articulate than the ensemble.
The machines might be on display, but it’s the humans behind them under an old-fashioned magnifying glass; they hint at longings for love, but would be more confident if their romantic targets were mechanoids – or, as it were, a zigzagging bishop or protective queen.
Computer Chess is part of the London Film Festival’s “Laugh” strand. Screening information can be found here.
United States of America
92 mins approx