Shall We Play A Game? COMPUTER CHESS Film Review

By at July 26, 2013 | 12:12 am | Print

3.5 / 5 stars

Computer Chess Movie Poster -- LargeOver the course of his first three features, writer-director Andrew Bujalski established a moderately new tone for independent film (sometimes called “mumblecore”), with a clear expression of the stammering awkwardness that can surface during conversation. With Computer Chess, the most bizarre entry of his short portfolio, Bujalski takes awkwardness further with a weekend full of social misfits, the kind you could find only at a computer programming competition. In 1980. In a crappy, claustrophobia-inducing hotel. It makes for the least accessible, yet most interesting of Bujalski’s entries, a true oddity that fascinates with technique rather than narrative.

As some sort of time-machine exercise, Bujalski does more than just set his film three decades in the past; he also shoots and edits with the technology of the time (including the use of a Sony tube camera that first became available in the late 1960s). It’s appropriate for a movie specifically about computer know-how at the dawn of the desktop era, but it makes the technical execution of Computer Chess its most intriguing element.

It’s as if Bujalski has gone back in time, too, shedding the polish and maturity of his last feature, Beeswax, to make a movie his younger self may have attempted. (Or at least a version of himself using 1970s equipment.) Creatively, this approach touches just about everything in Computer Chess: Save for a few engaging tracking shots, the film’s framing is generally crude, as if an amateur were trying hard to find the right composition, sometimes getting it right; the acting feels purposefully off-center and overly earnest, as it might in any movie on a shoestring budget; and Bujalski adds experimental editing, looping tricks, split screens and more, like a giddy kid blessed with free time in an edit bay.

Computer Chess Official Movie PosterThe characters, a motley bunch of devoted computer nerds, keep to their cloistered hotel world, all vying to stage the single chess-playing computer program to beat the others. Bujalski has never been too concerned with creating “likable” people in his movies, but the stray personalities of Computer Chess are practically impossible to embrace. They’re either painfully shy or uncomfortably boastful, all lacking the social graces one might consider mainstream. Having them intersect with a kooky couples’ therapy group at the hotel has its potential, but Bujalski opts for vague, scattered dialogue that feels arty for its own sake rather than ours.

When the conversation does work — and in a Bujalski feature, it usually does — it involves the future of artificial intelligence, the mental battle between man and machine, and the paranoia around government use of computers. It’s all humorous, a collection of thoughts and fears of a future that either never came to fruition, or did so with such speed and influence that we don’t even sense it in today’s world. These primitive ideas add to the occasional charms of Computer Chess — they sound naïve and stale today, but quite at home in any suspense thriller of the early 1980s (think WarGames, which would have been released after the film’s time).

Despite its creative smarts and originality, Computer Chess can really be summed up as an artistic curiosity, a fair distance from the relationship frameworks of Bujalski’s previous films. If you’re expecting another chapter in the mumblecore catalog, you’ll be surprised, perhaps disappointed. But you’ll also see one of the most strangely lo-fi films ever to be called a period piece.

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Trackbacks For This Post

  1. […] “Despite its creative smarts and originality, Computer Chess can really be summed up as an artistic curiosity, a fair distance from the relationship frameworks of Bujalski’s previous films.” – Norm Schrager, Meet in The Lobby […]

  2. […] Shall We Play A Game? COMPUTER CHESS Film Review […]

  3. […] for the evening. From his breakthrough slice of life Funny Ha Ha to the bizarrely mesmerizing Computer Chess, Bujalski has been a welcome IFFB regular. His latest features his most high-profile cast to date […]

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