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Set sometime in the ’80s, mumblecore maven Andrew Bujalski’s fourth feature, Computer Chess, is an adventurous and peculiar period piece. Chronicling a tournament of computers competing in chess and the programmers who code them, the film endearingly evokes the nascent and heady era before smart phones, laptops, and the internet. It’s a moment suffused with collegiate cotton shirts, overhead projectors, blocky, cumbersome computers, and the impending significance that this escotic, marginal endeavor will soon radically change the way we all live. But in Computer Chess’s moment, that all seems so far away — the chess programs are inept, quizzical, and, perhaps, suicidal; the only women at the convention is relentlessly singled out for being the “only woman here;” the tournament comically overlaps with a vaguely free-love encounter group.
But Bujalski is not interested in trading cheap jokes or stereotypes. Characters are textured and idiosyncratic, feeling real and unfeigned. Largely improvised by an ensemble cast of professional and nonprofessional actors (many of the computer programmers are played by actual programmers), Computer Chess’s performances are generous, with the spaciousness that comes from paying attention to the silences and strangeness of life as much as its connections and familiarities. Bujalski weaves in imprecision, disorientation, and awkwardness — ungainly split-screens, odd looping sequences, inexplicable shifts in focus and perspective. Increasingly, the film grows elusive and ghostly and human. Playing with the aesthetic of found footage and documentary film, Computer Chess could pass as a film document, did it not meander and shift its tone and focus so much.
Shot with a vintage Sony AVC-3260 video camera, a black and white analogue tube camera from the 1970s, the film looks like few others. Bujalski cites William Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton and public access television as two chief influences on the film and its look, and it is their atmosphere of unpredictability and mundane rawness which winds through his deceptively thoughtful and mercurial movie. Its visuals — a grainy, smeary plane of black, white, and gray — endow the film with mutable, lived spirit. Bujalski and his cinematographer Matthias Grunsky mine their camera, exploring its time-and-space altering aesthetic. Sensitive to light, the camera has the tendency to leave spectral light trails or render some characters see-through and transparent. Embracing the camera’s bizarre qualities and artifacts, Grunsky and Bujalski conjure an ephemeral, moving space. “All these artifacts combined,” Grunsky writes “add a transcendental character to the image and help express the sometimes unexplainable things that happen between man and computer in our story.”
And indeed man and computer are the most interesting dynamic in the film. Computer Chess’s great casts include the abrasive and cocky Michael Papageorge whose looping nights consist of him attempting to wheedle his way in someone’s motel room, the blowhard MC and chess master Pat Henderson, and the paranoid, computer chess enthusiastic John (Jim Lewis). One of the anxious and quaky college age programmers in the film, Patrick Riester plays Peter Bishton, harried member of the embattled CalTech team, with knowing insight. His character evokes the discomforts that sex and other people can inspire in some people — as well as the related allure to rationality of computers, superior as they may therefore feel in comparison to the messiness of everyday life. People are strange. Computers are decipherable.
But while relations between actors are delightful, what Bujalski does to link man and computer is clever and singular — slyly masterful. Like the light trails that streak across some shots, the unique relationships the coders have with their programs scrolls through scenes as a before-image of a future when humanity nurtures a legion of intimate relationships with their computers. The fates are tied, and appropriately, Computer Chess depicts a coming of age story for Peter. Because Computer Chess is also a coming of age story for the computer. It too is slowly discovering its place in the world. Either way, any one may be right in Bujalski’s lithe atmosphere: light and dark blend and blur, man and computer are more alike (in chess) than ever.
Bujalski has made a strange, brilliantly impressioned film. Period pieces, despite their nods to era-specific clothes, furnishings, and speech, always commingle a sense of pastness with nowness. The present is always in the past, as theme, dialogue, or convention. Where many films conceal this aspect of the present and enact a straightforward show, Computer Chess luxuriates in its overlap, twisting itself up in time and space. The effect is a movie that lives in the uncanny gaps of history, the halting steps and mistakes that all small beginnings go through on their way to big things.
Computer Chess plays at Film Forum through July 30.