COMPUTER CHESS—Review

by Peter Wong on July 31, 2013

“The Adventure Continues” may be the motto of the annual computer chess tournament that’s the setting of Andrew Bujalski’s ensemble comedy “Computer Chess.” Yet the tournament players’ inability to handle the unexpected leads to some interesting destinations in Bujalski’s new film.

References to 1984 as a future year establish “Computer Chess” takes place sometime in the early 1980s. At a low-rent motel (a silent hooker seen throughout the film attempts to ply her trade), a group of computer enthusiasts have come to test their newest artificial intelligence programs in a weekend-long computer chess tournament. But the weekend’s real entertainment is supplied by the tournament participants’ personal quirks and the glitches that take place. These mishaps include such things as scheduling conflicts with a New Age sexual liberation group and wandering long-haired cats.

Bujalski’s Job is iconoclastic programmer Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige, who played “Dave” in Bujalski’s “Funny Ha Ha”). Whether it’s dealing with the loss of his room reservation in the completely booked motel or having to find money to pay a drug debt, Papageorge’s mishaps provide a good share of the film’s comic moments.

Any sympathies one may have for the programmer gets dispelled by his character’s flaws. Principally, Papageorge’s arrogant dismissal of others’ work spurs genteel hostility from tournament host Pat Henderson (film critic Gerald Peary). His interest in Stasia team member Shelly Flintic is less bonding with a fellow outsider and more implicitly trying to get into her room and possibly her panties.

Then again, the characteristics of the other tournament participants hardly come off as inspirational. An English participant is quite willing to sell his services to DARPA. Henderson’s public welcomes for Flintic’s participation come off as patronizing and sexist. Programmer Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester) displays enough sexual repression to warm the hearts of a Family Research Council chapter.

It’s not terribly surprising that the New Age group’s members come off as emotionally accessible by comparison to the computer chess players. Exercises such as sticking thumbs into loaves of warm bread have obvious sexual overtones that the computer chess players could ever hope to acknowledge. Bujalski deserves props for avoiding implications that the New Age group is inherently more sympathetic than the programmer teams. If anything, the range of personalities displayed among the Alliance and Tsar teams, among others, provide more intriguing dramatic fodder.

Take the reactions displayed by the Tsar 3.0 team members to the possibility that their computer program has become self-aware. Tsar’s artificial intelligence version of taking a dive on its chess matches gets initially attributed by Bishton to an unknown software bug. Team psychologist Martin Beuscher dismisses Tsar’s odd behavior as resulting from an elaborate practical joke. It’s possible that team head Dr. Tom Schoesser’s rationalizations may be spurred by fears of losing his job and a means of supporting his family.

The Tsar team’s emotional blindness towards seeing the possibilities flowing from their work is a trait shared by the other competitors. A late night bull session where the MIT team and the tournament videographer dismissively discuss the possibility of devising a computer algorithm to help people find dates will raise the eyebrows of readers who have used OKCupid or eHarmony. In a foreshadowing of techie culture sexism, the topic of electronic dating coincidentally comes up while Flintic happens to be in the room.

Yet whatever merriment may be derived from the assembled nerds’ shortcomings, Bujalski finds things to admire in their activities. A viewer’s skepticism gets curtailed by the players’ conviction that they can find the programming key that will enable a clunky and bulky PDP-11 computer to think well enough to outwit a human player. An embarrassing forfeiture by the Tsar team gets informally withdrawn thanks to the other player’s willingness to accept Dr. Schoesser’s informal request.

Bujalski’s decision to shoot “Computer Chess” on a Sony AVC3260, an early analog video camera, could be called his way of providing in-your-face empathy with his characters rather than using the distancing that HD color video would provide. The sharp clarity of the modern color video format would be the equivalent of someone claiming that they somehow knew at the time a particular person would achieve fame and fortune. With the early Sony’s slightly blurry video quality, the uncertainties of the long term effects of the players’ work get captured in visual terms. More prosaic followers of Bujalski’s work will consider the video format used here a case of cinematic bird-flipping in keeping with his penchant for filming in such non-commercial feature film formats as 16 mm film.

“Computer Chess”’ entertaining idiosyncracies are not limited to the choice of video medium. Seeing who ultimately wins the competition turns out to be of only secondary significance. The paper crown and the cheap looking trophy awarded to the winner underscore that point. The film’s best moments come from having its otherwise straightforward chronicle of events tripped up by moments of underplayed fantasy. The Papageorge storyline in particular offers such memorable moments through the film’s sole color sequence and the frequent sight of fluffy stray cats.

Bujalski once commented in an interview with Cinema Scope that cats were inherently cinematic. That air of unpredictable willfulness associated with cats describes quite a few of the director’s subtle touches in “Computer Chess.” The prostitute trying to ply her trade is doubly unlucky as the New Age group has its own means of achieving sexual satisfaction while the chess players are generally more interested in matters of the mind instead of the flesh. Bishton and Flintic’s meeting of minds never develops into anything more carnal.

“Computer Chess” ends on a clever visual metaphor. It involves the completion of an experiment that the tournament videographer attempted early on with his gun-like video camera. The result both offers a visual comment on the tournament weekend as well as allusions to the myth of Icarus and a future so bright one must wear shades.
(“Computer Chess” is currently playing at the Opera Plaza Cinemas (601 Van Ness, SF).)

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