Computer Chess (2013)

Review first published by Film4.

Papageorge forever

Synopsis: Mumblecore moviemaker Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation, Beeswax) looks back to the pioneering days of computers (and video cameras).

Review: It is the ominous-sounding year of 1984. A collection of geeky computer pioneers converge on a shabby hotel for an annual chess competition that pits one state-of-the-art (yet to our eyes, clunkily vintage) machine against another, with the winning computer to face grand master – and master of ceremonies – Pat Henderson (film critic Gerald Peary) in a final match. These programmers, coders and hangers-on find themselves forced to share conference space with a couples therapy group who are into free love and rebirthing, leading to a series of improbable hook-ups between the robotically rational and the touchy-feely human.

Birth is a recurrent motif in Computer Chess, written and directed by Andrew Bujalski. Tsar 3.0 teamleader Tom Schoesser (Gordon Kindlmann) keeps getting distracted by his own real newborn. Maverick loser Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige) finds himself born again in a therapy session, while never quite breaking free from the loop of overmothering and cashlessness that has him running in circles. Most importantly of all, we witness the first signs of the computing revolution to come, presented in (literally) embryonic form.

Shot, mostly in black and white, on an outdated analog-tube video camera in outmoded 4:3 aspect ratio, Computer Chess starts out as a nostalgia-tinged observational comedy inspiring both laughs and cringes with its über-nerdy characters. Soon, however, it heads into unexpectedly surreal places, as the corridors and rooms of the hotel itself come to resemble a circuited network of neural pathways, free-associative links, glitchy connections, easy sex and ubiquitous cats. Here, as in the more extravagantly appointed hotel in Last Year At Marienbad (1961), games are played, challenges are issued, and all seem frozen and trapped by their own flawed habits and (sub)routines. And so, the future – our present – is born, warts and all.

In A Nutshell: Bujalski gives us a glitchy, geeky 80s Marienbad populated by sex addicts and lolcats, with results that are both funny ha ha, and the other kind.

Anton Bitel