A rather cute notion clouds the mystical existential drama of Computer Chess, the new film by Andrew Bujalski. Just before the dawn of personal computers, software programmers from schools like MIT and Cal Tech have gathered at a convention to test programs of computer chess against one another. Bujalski and his longtime cinematographer Matthias Grunsky shot the film with actual technology of the era, a Sony AVC 3260 tube-based camera from the ‘70s (See Grunsky’s blog post on working with the camera). However, the film stands as so much more than a retro-fetishizing of the past. Not only does the cinematography match the era in which the film’s drama unfolds, but it adds a rather preternatural atmosphere to the goings on between man and computer.
With his new film, Bujalski offers a statement on the dilution of the mysteries of the analog and the romanticism surrounding that, lost to a mathematical world that threatens living organically, as computing continues to confine humanity while defining life experiences with every new, so-called “advance.” Indeed, this film stands as a work revealing an evolved, sensitive filmmaker, beyond the narcissistic world of mumblecore, a film scene of the early 2000s Bujalski helped define with early works like Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2005).
It all begins with setting atmosphere for Bujalski, and he uses the vintage filmmaking technology and all its quirks to his advantage. Along with the ghosting from lights burning too long on the mostly black and white images, the movie also has a flat sound quality to its audio track. There are also explorations in archaic spilt-screen effects and some witty supers on teletype during the conference’s opening statements. The film’s slower pace also harkens to another time, if not the early 1980s, then certainly a sort of indie-film aesthetic defined by an elder Austin indie film pioneer: Richard Linklater. Characters talk over one another and during one marijuana-induced scene, reveal various ideas and fantasies about exploring what was then the very new world of artificial intelligence, from cold war concerns to existential entanglements.
The characters spend most of their time in a hotel of appropriately vintage quality. From the lamps, to the cheap dressers inside the hotel rooms, the film’s production designer, Michael Bricker, deserves extra acknowledgement. He seems to have put great effort into recreating “vintage banal,” as well as costume designer Colin Wilkes, who gets everything from the corduroy suits to the raggedy Polos and T-shirts that right sort of disheveled that would never pass in today’s hipster geek scene.
These superficial aspects aside, the film soon rises above its gimmick to enter a brilliant territory beyond nostalgia. It opens with a roaming camera as the nerds gather, awkwardly commenting to the camera. During an opening panel with the stars of this conference, the camera pans to the audience. One guy quietly but sternly shakes his head in disagreement while someone else nods off. It all seems rather candid and indulgent in its own “vintageness,” as if looking to create a faux document of a lost era. However, it soon becomes apparent that Computer Chess would like to offer much more than this. With hindsight perspective from the 21st century, the filmmakers choose to focus on whether humanity did the right thing to venture into this wormhole of artificial intelligence that now seems to rule our lives.
At the heart of the film, though by no means the film’s only level of drama, is Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester) and Shelly Flintic (Robin Schwartz), two young programmers who have an easy chemistry in their mutually awkward attraction to one another that never moves beyond brief glances. More pressing matters are at hand, as Peter appears more concerned about his team’s computer, TSAR, which only seems to follow disastrous moves against other computers. However, when Peter asks Shelly to play the computer, TSAR seems to make an effort. This quirk inspires Peter to think the computer was acting out and has an innate desire to play the game with a human.
This projection of a personality on TSAR by the sensitive Peter while he fails to connect with Shelly is just the tip of the iceberg. Bujalski spreads his ideas among more than this couple. There is the cocky human chess master Pat Henderson (played with deadpan bravado by Boston film critic Gerald Peary) boiling over with repressed anger at the notion of irrelevance. Then there’s the enigmatic “independent programmer” Michael Pappageorge (a charmingly quirky Myles Paige), who may be programming in Sanskrit and seems to be haunted by fluffy cats. Acting as Peter’s foil and grounded mentor, family man Tom Schoesser (real-life University of Chicago computer science professor Gordon Kindlmann indulging in the film’s soberest character), would never dream of anthropomorphizing computers, as he casually but determinedly pioneers this new virtual cyberscape.
Even outside this group, other layers of the film’s concerns come to light. The fact that the tournament shares a conference room with an “encounter group” concerned with communal “rebirthing” experiences has a resonance far beyond the wink implied at the past. This is only another way humanity struggles to find the transcendental experience in a world that continues to work to rationalize existence while inching further away from the powers of mysticism.
One of the ways Bujalski maintains the mystical, beyond several strange scenes that seem downright Lynchian best left to surprise, is his inspired choices for the film’s soundtrack, specifically, his unearthing of the obscure folk singer Collie Ryan. The film features rather gorgeous musical interludes of Ryan rambling on guitar and warbling poetic lyrics that have a loop-like quality. Her voice twitters like Kate Bush as she sings about nature and man’s futile role to do nothing but learn to flow with it. During one particularly powerful moment, she sings, “And the rain comes down easy/But the minds of men take longer,” against a montage featuring droplets of rain nourishing some small leaves, while the programmers hustle to cover up and protect their equipment from the casual wrath of nature. It’s raw, organic and positively stirring in an understated way.
Ryan comes from obscurity and is far from the mass media viral hype of today’s popular music artist who needs technology to achieve any sort of relevance in contemporary pop culture, from social media marketing to the computer programs used to “co-write” songs. Ryan came to the project because Bujalski wrote her a letter, of all things. She was an obscurity during an era that had long grown past folk music, in the early ‘70s. Bujalski only learned of her through a friend (reference). It’s a rather organic and pure word-of-mouth experience far from Google filters and Spotify suggestions, and it resonates against the images and concerns of the film as far as adding yet another layer to the montage.
With Computer Chess, Bujalski presents the beginning of an end. It chronicles the dawn of the digital world from the analog. But it’s so much more. This is the awakening of another consciousness, outside humanity’s. These are people toying with the latch of Pandora ’s Box.
Computer Chess runs 92 minutes and is not rated (language and sexuality). It opens in South Florida exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, Sept. 14, which provided a DVD preview screener for the purposes of this review. Nationwide, the film might already be playing in your neighborhood or coming soon, see full screening dates (that’s a hotlink). Yoga Records has provided a bandcamp page to stream the entire soundtrack for free here.
(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)