Technology and humanity square off in more ways than one in Computer Chess, a deceptively lo-fi comedy from writer-director Andrew Bujalski.
The movie takes place over a weekend tournament for computer programmers at a mundane hotel sometime in the early 1980s. Hailing from institutions such as Caltech and MIT, these heavily bespectacled men (well, there is one woman, which the event’s host, amusingly played by film critic Gerald Peary, keeps clumsily pointing out) have come together to pit their chess-playing computers against each other. May the best algorithm win.
Of course it’s the people who lose, even as they make strides academically. For while we can see the dawning of artificial intelligence within the tournament – there’s an explicit reference to HAL of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 – the emotional intelligence of the participants suffers the same sorts of glitches and errors that the human race has experienced for millennia.
Consider Peter (Patrick Riester), the withdrawn student programmer who is so inept at dealing with people he can’t recognize the flirtation bubbling beneath the shop talk of Shelly (Robin Schwartz), the female attendee. Or Michael (Myles Paige), the abrasive contestant who fails to reserve a room and spends much of the film wandering the hotel’s halls in a loop, aggravating almost everyone he encounters. These are people so preoccupied with their advanced machines that they have little regard for the simple connections that define their own humanity.
The emotional intelligence of the participants suffers the same sorts of glitches and errors that the human race has experienced for millennia.
Not that abandoning the intellect altogether is the answer. Also taking place at the hotel is a couples’ conference of sorts in which the participants spend time gazing into each other’s eyes and thrusting their clasped hands into warm bread. Computer Chess is as skeptical of this lot as it is of the programmers; they have intimacy, yes, but of a malfunctioning sort, as when a swinging couple in the therapy group unwisely targets the distant Peter for an attempted threesome.
Computer Chess seems to be in favor of the type of connection that exists between these two poles, between the extreme sensualists and the reserved rationalists. If there is a true moment of two-way communication in the movie, it’s when Peter asks Shelly to play against his computer as herself, as a human. His computer responds with unexpected vigor (which briefly gets him to do the same).
Formally, Computer Chess never lets you forget that the movie itself is an exercise in technology. Though the grungy, black-and-white video photography suggests a dated aesthetic, Bujalski employs all sorts of techniques that go beyond the simple recording of an image. The picture randomly becomes blurred or pixelated at some points and gives way to a split screen at others. One sequence suddenly bursts with color.
Parsing the possible meanings behind these choices could lead you down an endless rabbit hole – and happily, if you’re into that sort of thing. (Computer Chess will most likely strike a chord with those who consider Pi and Primer minor masterpieces.) At the very least, this is a movie of wry simplicity that has been subjected to all sorts of avant-garde tinkering. You get the sense the picture itself is being analyzed, measured, processed, even as it unfolds.