Computer Chess (Kino Lorber, NR)

ComputerChess 75I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Computer Chess is Bujalski’s best film, but it is close to it, and also it’s unlike anything he’s ever made before. Or anything anyone else has made before, for that matter.

ComputerChess 500

Coming in at number five on my Top Ten Films of 2013 list, and also the strangest film from that list (which is a feat, considering it also featured The Act of Killing), is Andrew Bujalski’s fourth feature, Computer Chess. About eight years ago I wrote a column about how Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, Beeswax) was the most exciting new director on the American independent scene, and the fact that despite this, the Sundance Film Festival had never programmed any of his movies. Computer Chess is the film that broke that streak—it premiered at Sundance 2013. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Computer Chess is Bujalski’s best film (that honor would probably go to 2005’s Mutual Appreciation), but it is close to it, and also it’s unlike anything he’s ever made before. Or anything anyone else has made before, for that matter.

The film takes place in a competition circa 1980 to write a computer program that can beat a human player at chess. A bunch of programming teams have their programs face off, tournament-style, and then the winning computer program has to play the tournament’s real-human coordinator, who is played by noted film critic Gerald Peary (whose books on cult movies are invaluable). As you can imagine, most of the characters depicted in the film are dorks of some sort—some awkward, some shy, some grandstanding, some obnoxious. For the first time the tournament includes a female programmer, whose name is Shelly (Robin Schwartz) and is just as shy as the boys, but upon whom much attention is lavished to celebrate her mere presence. Elsewhere, one half of a comically failing programming team is played by an all-grown-up Wiley Wiggins, who played the freshman Mitch Kramer in Dazed & Confused twenty years ago. The most memorable character is Michael Papageorge (a great Myles Paige), who in addition to being the most relatable and outspoken of the characters gets more of an arc than most of the other programmers do on account of the fact that his room reservation didn’t take, and he therefore has nowhere to sleep during the tournament.

While this all probably sounds normal enough, and perhaps even boring, when seeing the film you’ll find that it’s formally challenging, but in a fun, new way. Most noticeable is the way the film looks—it was shot in black and white on a camera from 1969, and looks pretty much like watching an old, beaten-up VHS tape. The story structure takes some unusual turns toward the end of the film, too, involving swingers also staying in the hotel, a goofy therapy seminar taking place in the same hotel as the chess tournament, and prostitutes, cats, and computers infecting our lives. In that way, Computer Chess makes an interesting companion piece to Her, in that they both have a lot to say about the way we’ve lived, the way we’re living, and they way we will be living soon, and how computers factor into all of that.

Don’t worry if you’re interested in seeing this film but not a computer geek—I’m certainly not one (a computer geek), but loved the film all the same. You might have to be a film geek to really “get” this one, though—people looking for mindless entertainment or predictable narratives might be horrified by how fresh and smart this movie is. | Pete Timmermann

Computer Chess shows at the Webster Film Series at 7:30 PM January 24-26. For more information, visit webster.edu/filmseries or call (314) 968-7487.

 

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