I’ve never seen an Andrew Bujalski film before, but I loved his new film Computer Chess, which I’m told is something of a departure for the independent filmmaker. It’s funny, bizarre, and utterly original. It’s the type of film that introduces a type of funny that you didn’t know existed, that isn’t based in popular culture or punchlines or pratfalls or virtually anything that we’ve seen before. The movie has resonances of familiarity (as indicated by the title of this review) but also continuously subverts any potential means of access, constantly remaking itself as it progresses along.
Computer Chess moves freely from a mockumentary artifact to a Lynchian, low-fi comedy of oddities, revisiting a range of topics including go-nowhere academia, post-counterculture free love, late Cold War-era politics, and conspiracy theories. It’s an ’80s period piece, but it never feels nostalgic or hip. It exhibits incredible verisimilitude to its time and subject matter, but at the same time builds its own autonomous world. It’s the weird kind of funny, but it’s never too discomfiting or alienating or quirky or self-aware . Computer Chess feels like a return to the golden era of ’80s and ’90s American independent filmmaking – not a place for Hollywood’s refugees, but a place where American films are created as if Hollywood never existed.
Filmed in Austin, Computer Chess takes place mostly in a hotel that houses a 4-day computer chess tournament in which teams of programmers compete with other programmers to see whose computer is the superior player. The tournament culminates with the winning computer playing a human chess champion. But the docu-like depiction of the MIT team vs. the CalTech team vs. an unhinged independent programmer quickly gives way to a series of strange (but never forced) tangents. These include drug-addled conversations over the role that computers will play in bringing about the end of the world; collaborative new age group sex therapy sessions led by an enigmatic African man named Keneiole (Tishuan Scott), which constantly threatens to both interrupt and consume the tournament; and vague allusions that something far more sinister might be going on.
The film’s central players are team CalTech, the incumbent champions defending their title with a modified version of their previous year’s model. Peter (Patrick Riester), Martin (Wiley Wiggins), and Prof. Schoesser (Gordon Kindlmann) all encounter varied forms of existential panic when their model underperforms: Peter ruminates on whether computers have will while he experiences a sort-of sexual awakening; Martin barely handles his depths of frustration, and Prof. Schoesser’s authority slowly erodes away. Meanwhile, independent programmer Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige) is denied a room in the hotel and, regardless of the potential accommodations that he is offered by his competitors, seems determined to explore the hotel in every restless way he can, whether that be sleeping around or joining Keneiole’s all-night tantric meditation sessions. Dave (Chris Doubek) and Pauline (Cyndi Williams) are two of Keneiole’s free spirits, and relentlessly attempt to recruit Peter into opening up his mind to new human connections, providing the film’s best laugh-out-loud moments along the way.
A lot more happens in this tiny movie, but this just gives you an indication of the sprawling series of bizarre episodes that occur in its compact running time. If any of these events sound forced by description, they aren’t; there’s something about Bujalski’s filmmaking that makes even a world as particular and esoteric as the one depicted in Computer Chess seem coherent and full.
Likely because of the fact that the majority of Computer Chess is relegated to interiors, the film’s early 1980s setting (an early scene references the probability that a computer will beat a person at chess “sometime in 1984”) is realized with rich verisimilitude, as if the film were meant to be confused as an artifact from its era (House of the Devil would make for a fitting pairing). The film is shot to resemble early videomaking, complete with analog glitches, ’80s computer font credits, and live-feed split screens. However, Computer Chess doesn’t seem to be interested in pastiche or ironic winking; even with its deftly executed peculiarities, it immerses itself into the world its created with the utmost sincerity and dedication, treating its subculture like a participant-observer would, and forming the hotel as a stage for a profound intercultural conflict between aging peaceniks and the emerging technocracy.
It’s this quality that makes Computer Chess work. By not treating itself as a joke, it becomes one of the most original comedies of the year.
The Upside: You’d be hard pressed to find an American film this unique this year; exhibits a bizarre, fresh brand of humor seemingly without reference anywhere else; can be enjoyed without knowing anything about chess; has the feel of great American indies of yore; Wiley Wiggins
The Downside: As with indies of this scale, it’s certainly rough around the edges, especially with some readerly dialogue delivered by supporting non-professional actors, but that also adds to its charm; it’s a film that’s definitely not for everyone
On the Side: The major chess events involving computer programs beating humans didn’t occur until 1989 and 1996.
Computer Chess opened this week in New York and Denver from Kino Lorber. You can track its screenings around the country here.