Director: Andrew Bujalski
Cast: Patrick Riester, Wiley Wiggins, Myles Paige, Robin Schwartz and Gerald Peary
Running Time: 92 minutes
Release Date: November 15th
At one point in Computer Chess, a character refers to a computer program as being “different, very unconventional, strange and quite odd.” No line of dialogue more accurately describes Bujalski’s perplexing journey into the annals of order and chaos, by a way of an innocent computer chess tournament.
The setting is middle-America in the early 1980s. Teams of university students and their professors have written chess programs designed to beat even the most advanced strategies their cybernetic rivals can devise. Coincidentally (or perhaps not, as the film suggests) a marriage counselling/self-discovery seminar is also taking place, creating a fascinating clash of driven logic and rationality versus soaring free-love and free-spiritedness.
The film employs a retro-nostalgic style; the film cameras used appear to be fairly primitive and of their time — the film is entirely black and white with grit, dirt and graininess gleefully decorating the quirky atmosphere. Indeed some of the actors are so impressively laid back and conversational that it becomes difficult to assume that they’re actors at all.
For the first half of the film, Computer Chess plays as an amusing meditation on the trials of the human spirit in the face of technical advancement in a bygone era when the transformative potential of computing was still being realised. Some of the usual post-modern gags manage to creep their way in (“I think that one day computers will be used for dating,”) and it’s relatively unassuming quirky fun. Midway through the film however, an eerie transformation takes place as the restrictive shackles of reality begin to fall away and concepts that seem maddening to the protagonists begin to present themselves regardless. It’s difficult to ascertain whether Bujalski’s making an attempt at showing a victory of the chaotic machinations of the mind or whether he’s simply exploiting the odd idiosyncrasies and hidden anxieties of his characters, but it’s nothing if not memorable.
The film’s style and performances are gripping throughout and some of the characters drive some provocative discourse regarding the nature of research, the danger and magic of technology ,and the excitement of the revolutionary period in which the film is set. Gleefully eccentric and barking mad, it’s hard to say it’s not hilarious as well.