Review first appeared in Sight & Sound, Dec 2013
Synopsis: America, 1984. Programmers assemble at a hotel for a weekend chess tournament that will pit their computers against one another, with the winner eventually taking on MC and grandmaster Pat Henderson. Experimental psychologist Martin Beuscher and student Peter Bishton run the programme TSAR 3.0 in the absence of their professor, the well-connected Tom Schoesser, and keep having to concede games as the programme plays suicidal moves. Arriving the following day, Schoesser reassures the despondent Bishton that defeat is an advantage and TSAR 3.0 will win the long game. That night, Bishton meets with Shelly Flintic, member of the MIT team running STASIA (and the only woman in attendance), and discovers that TSAR 3.0 performs better against an actual human. Later Schoesser dismisses Bishton’s theory as a pathway to insanity. Meanwhile, with no room booking, maverick independent Michael Papageorge sleeps on others’ floors and in the staircase. Eventually given his own room, he finds it infested with cats, and sleeps instead under a table in the conference room, where he is awoken by a couples’ therapy group who subject him to rebirthing. Papageorge loses the final. A couple from the therapy group attempts to seduce Bishton, who flees. With no prize money to repay dealers John and Freddy for drugs that he stole, Papageorge goes to his mother’s house with Freddy. Beuscher tells Bishton about a session when TSAR 3.0 exhibited signs of embryonic consciousness. After accidentally ruining TSAR 3.0 with rainwater, Bishton invites a prostitute to his room. She strips, revealing circuitry beneath her hair.
Review: “Just here to see the end of the world,” says John (Jim Lewis), cheerily explaining why he is attending a computer chess tournament in a nondescript American hotel even though he and his drug-dealing buddy Freddy (Freddy Matinez) have nothing to do with computers. The year, 1984, creates an Orwellian sense of both impending doom and a future unrealised – and it was also the year that saw the release of Jeff Kanew’s Revenge of the Nerds and James Cameron’s The Terminator, from both of which, in its oblique way, Computer Chess draws, in its mannered pitting of nerdish Man (and one Woman) against Machine during a competition that is contributing, unassumingly, to the birth of the networked world to come
Andrew Bujalski, writer/director of Funny Ha Ha (2002), Mutual Appreciation (2005) and Beeswax (2009), here modifies mumblecore to mumblecode, taking us back to a time when computers (as we know them) were still in an embryonic state, when geeks were still off the mainstream grid, and when apocalyptic changes in the industry were just around the corner. Chess expert Pat Henderson (Gerald Peary, film critic for the Boston Phoenix), who presides as grandmaster of ceremonies and will challenge whichever programme wins to a final tournament between computer and human, opens the event with a story about ‘the Turk’, the first ever chess-playing machine which defeated, amongst others, Benjamin Franklin (in 1783) and Napoleon Bonaparte (in 1809) at the game, even if all along a man hidden inside the clockwork device was making the winning moves.
The anecdote is an apt introduction for a film in which some of the programmers (many played by genuine tech heads) seem less than human – and therefore all the more human – while some of the computers display moods (or should that be modes?) that come across as decidedly unmachinelike. For here the warts-and-all character of the designers is replicated in the computers. TSAR 3.0’s propensity to keep ‘committing suicide’ seems merely to match its stressed-out, catatonically lugubrious student programmer Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester), while the mercurial gambits of CHECKERS echo the unpredictable movements of its maverick programmer Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige). Meanwhile another independent, Luke (Bert Herigstad), identifies completely with his computer (“It’s all me, LUKE Version 1. There’s only Version 1”). If their obsessiveness and eccentricity at first generate cringe-inducing, nostalgia-tinged comedy of manners, soon the laughs give way to a more mysterious surrealism, as paranoia sets in, as an infestation of cats (that staple of today’s internet) takes over the hotel’s interiors, as a computer appears to evolve a nascent consciousness, and as humans start exposing their own inner circuity.
Shot (but for one glitchy sequence) in black and white, on an outdated analog tube camera (the Sony AVC-3260) and in 4:3 aspect ratio, Computer Chess looks as amiably clunky as the early computers it celebrates. If the Singularity – the moment when artificial intelligence exceeds and merges with its human counterpart – is what these pioneering programmers are seeking, then in its way Bujalski’s filmmaking aims for its visual analogue. In one scene, the state of confusion induced in an exhausted Bishton as he listens to the technical explanations of his teacher Tom Schoesser (Gordon Kindlmann) is expressed by jumpy, disorienting edits, while in another, the circuit of insolvency and overmothering in which Papageorge has become caught is represented by a coloured loop of repeating footage (with a voice-over describing a computer error). If the cameraman (Kevin Brewerdorf) documenting the competition finally, despite warnings, points his Sony Portapak towards the sun, burning out the image that he records (and that we see), this mirrors the Icarus-like hubris of these computer geeks, soaring imperfectly (and overstretching their equipment) to forge the tomorrow that is our today.
As these academic researchers, corporate drones and oddball independents are forced to share space with a touchy-feely couples’ therapy group, they too will find themselves struggling to break free of limited mindsets and be reborn. Meanwhile, the hotel itself takes on the labyrinthine aspect of Resnais’ Marienbad – a place where games are played, traps are set and escape seems all but impossible. The code for the future has already been written – and as Bujalski seeks to discover who we are and where we come from (not just as wired-in 21st century users but as human beings), it’s checkmate in 12 hilariously unorthodox moves.