Back before computer nerds (and the artificial intelligence they created) inherited the earth, these pasty-faced programmers seemed like little more than socially awkward A/V geeks who had graduated to the collegiate level. As things turned out, they got the last laugh, but if their present-day stock options aren’t providing sufficient comfort, they might want to check out Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess, which offers a portrait of young nerds on the cusp of becoming the white knights of the military-industrial complex.
Computer Chess takes place circa 1980 at an annual convention during which various college, corporate, and freelance coding teams match their programs’ intelligence against other teams in a weekend of a round-robin chess competition. These are still the days of bulky mainframes the size of dorm refrigerators that need to be pushed around by more than one person. Most of the nerds are outfitted with the large-framed glasses common to the period, as well as the bad hairdos and other unfortunate style choices prevalent at the time. Shot in black-and-white (by Bujalski’s regular cinematographer Matthias Grunsky, using first-generation, analog camcorders authentic to the time period), Computer Chess at first seems like documentary footage from the event. We witness the jousting of egos and the frequent, self-congratulatory remarks about the first woman (Schwartz) to partake in the event. Soon the documentary illusion dissipates and the movie begins to zero in on a few characters, chief among them Peter (Riester), a shy, young programmer who is baffled by the way his team’s computer constantly tosses the game.
Several other characters also come into focus, although there’s not really any plot to speak of. In this way, Computer Chess seems a continuation, rather than a divergence, from the mumblecore films (Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation, Beeswax) that first brought Austin-based filmmaker Bujalski to national attention. A mix of professional and nonprofessional actors articulately hem and haw – always more confident in scientific realms than interpersonal. Contrasting with the computer nerds are the attendees of a couples encounter group, which is also taking place at the same, shabby motel that weekend and vying for use of the same conference space. Their appeal to hearts and emotions seems contrary to the programmers’ reliance on patterns and logic, but somehow in Bujalski’s hands they are all stymied seekers of enlightenment. In this film, Bujalski conducts a serious inquiry, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, into the nature of intelligence – human and artificial. It’s a query with no answers, a period piece about the present. It’s idiosyncratic, actively noncommercial, and doesn’t follow the rules – like playing a game of chess on a board with no squares.
See "Better Than OK 'Computer'," August 23, for an interview with Andrew Bujalski.
Computer Chess, Andrew Bujalski, Patrick Riester, Myles Paige, Wiley Wiggins, Robin Schwartz, Gerald Peary, Gordon Kindlmann, James Curry, Jim Lewis, Chris Doubek, Cyndi Williams, Tishuan Scott, Bob Sabiston, Kevin Bewersdorf