A black-and-white game gets a black-and-white visual treatment in Computer Chess, the most formally sophisticated movie to date by the New York writer-director Andrew Bujalski. Shot on a vintage Portapak video camera that actually predates the movie’s early-eighties setting and painstakingly crafted to resemble an analog artifact from a bygone era, Computer Chess is, ironically, a comedy about technological innovation. Its characters are software programmers trying to design programs advanced enough to successfully checkmate a human grandmaster.
It takes a certain kind of mindset to spend one’s days writing code – Bujalski, whose earlier films mostly orbited around bohemian-hipster types, seems at ease amidst the pasty introverts participating in the weekend-long hotel-set chess tournament that gives the film its narrative spine. The early sequences, which introduce the competition and its various rules and rivalries, have a naturalistic geek-clique quality: We might be watching a homemade documentary. But even though characters like deadbeat programmer Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige) and unctuous master of ceremonies Pat Henderson (Gerald Peary) are clearly comic figures, Bujalski isn’t playing at Christopher Guest-like caricature. Instead of mocking this eccentric group, he climbs right inside their anxieties and ambitions.
Computer Chess gets mainly into the headspace of Peter (Patrick Reister), a shy newbie representing Cal Tech with a knack for math who is nevertheless unequipped to decode the trickier calculus of sexual attraction. He’s got a thing for the tournament’s only female programmer (Robin Schwartz), but in addition to his own painful shyness, the movie keeps throwing obstacles in his way. In one of the sharpest scenes, Peter stumbles across a group of middle-aged swingers on a group retreat who seem to be refugees from the late 1960s. Suffice it to say, their hedonism does not compute. The joke is that the old-counterculture warriors are just as isolated and out of it as the nerds down the hall – two generations divided by decades yet united in their solipsism.
There is a meandering quality to Computer Chess that may aggravate those who prefer movies to have cause-and-effect plotting. But it also allows Bujalski to indulge in some subtly surreal gags. The hotel setting is weirdly evocative of The Shining (one room is inexplicably filled with cats instead of ghosts) and the incessant shop-talk about advances in artificial intelligence evokes a whole rash of 1980s science-fiction hits, from WarGames to The Terminator. Those movies were paranoid fantasies about malevolent machines rising up against their masters, and at times, Computer Chess seems to be malfunctioning like a cranky Commodore 64. The focus is wobbly, the sound is over-cranked and at one point, the cinematography shifts abruptly from grey-scale video to 16-mm colour – a switch that gently satirizes The Wizard of Oz, since Bujalski uses the colour sequence to depict one character’s return home.
Bujalski makes these references to other movies casually, without any of the relentless citation of somebody like Quentin Tarantino, whose own films are often caught between reverence and condescension for older pop culture. What makes Computer Chess truly impressive is how Bujalski resists the urge to score points off of his characters, whose hypotheses about how much faster computers could possibly get are of course 30 years past their sell-by date. The point seems to be not that these wannabe software grandmasters are hopelessly naive about the potentials of their milieu, but rather that the cutting edge of every era eventually gets blunted. At a time when so many filmmakers pontificate about the untapped potential of digital cinema, Bujalski’s skipping-VCR aesthetic might be a wistful joke about a truism older than chess itself: The more things change, the more they stay the same.