It’s 1980, and computers and larger than lawnmowers and not so personal—we had yet to figure out how to share a desk amicably. The gulf between man and machine was physically and psychically vast, which made the notion of a computer chess tournament that much more laden with unease and wonder.
Andrew Bujalski’s Sundance prize-winner unfolds within a Texas hotel where nerds from the nation over pit their chess-playing programs one against the other. Techno-tensions dictate both Computer Chess’ narrative and format, which is black and white video, 1.33, shot on the Sony AVC3260, a camera for which hard focus was apparently impossible. We actually see a videographer shooting the tournament and much behind-the-scenes material, which makes the film something of a quasi-faux-doc. There are overhead projectors, a lounge musician playing a buzzy electro-organ, and no ATMs where Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige) could, in theory, get some cash for the room, the drugs and the hooker he can’t pay for. There is an infestation of cats capable of operating elevators. There is also an encounter group that meets to reenact their births and dig their hands in warm bread—representatives of an earlier generation. Much of the film’s most resonant comedy comes from the way Bujalski underlines the ways in which computer geeks of the era were on the cutting edge of something they hardly understood while being seriously handicapped when it came to engaging in basic social activities. Though the videographer—the smartest geek in the room?—wisely predicts that one day computers will be used for dating.
Though an introverted child-Cronenberg lookalike (Patrick Riester) and a experimental psychologist (Slacker’s Wiley Wiggins) play key roles, Bujalski doesn’t favour any single character, preferring to let Computer Chess drift along as an affectionate, almost Altman-like ensemble/milieu piece. His characters have greasy hair, stains on their shirts, beards of resignation, outsized glasses and neglected physiques. Some of them get together in the evenings to smoke dope and swap big ideas about artificial intelligence or how this whole computer chess enterprise may just be grist for the military-industrial complex. Others are just trying to get friendly with the one young woman (Robin Schwartz) in attendance—a huge novelty, and, in the end, the biggest innovation at an event devoted to supposedly visionary advancements. The film is full of awkward life, and quite a bit of fun.