Andrew Bujalski’s whispery, tiny-budget films are, to some, representations of a predominantly white, late-20’s, well-educated perspective on a nation that’s become equal parts pacifying and challenging to that exact demographic. Perhaps the expectations of such films come less from the realities of the works themselves and more from their shoestring budgets. In general, less money equals more reality, or at least an attempt to capture reality. That these films, formerly known by the now dirty term “mumblecore,” are steeped in artifice and projection only adds to the difficulty of classifying them. I tend to find these films to be spawned on the ideals of lazy dreams and parentally-funded lifestyles, thus making them suitably exemplifying of a generation that has too many options and too little data on smart decisions.
It’s fitting then that Bujalski’s first venture away from his patented aesthetic would be about a group of white nerds (and one white woman) pontificating on chess and the nature of artifice. People, it seems Bujalski might be saying, have become as much an artificial construction as the computers they create. As a cinematic experience, Computer Chess fails to engage on almost every basic level, and most often becomes watchable only when resorting to the exact tropes it pushes away, yet it succeeds with gusto at capturing the delusional confusion at the precipice of a computer-driven world. There’s a direct line between these nerds in an Austin hotel room and the Harvard-trained nerds who would soon populate Austin coffee shops on their personal computers.
The plot of Computer Chess is simple. It’s the late-70s and a group of programmers are gathered in a hotel for a competition to see who has created the computer with the best chance to beat an actual human at chess. To get to the point of playing a chess master each computer will take on each other. While this lays the groundwork for the story, Bujalski segues into the lives of these people as they navigate the hallways of a Super 8, contemplating computer technology, sonograms, and threesomes.
To call Computer Chess bizarre would be speaking only to its jagged superficial elements. In regard to it’s construction, there’s no shortage of “what the fuck?” moments peppered inside an otherwise clear situational comedy. The breaks into low-fi, David Lynch-lite strangeness are hilarious because of their stark contrast to the Michael Cera, “shoot-me-now” nerdy awkwardness. The moments that work are nonetheless the ones that pit characters who are unable to communicate beyond their brilliant brains. One standout scene shows a young man in a room with a couple of swingers who tell him chess is limited because it’s only “64 squares.” The kid defiantly explains, with simmering excitement, that chess poses infinite possibilities. His audience can only see the pleasures of sexual release. For this character, purpose is derived from seeing past immediate responses and finding a deeper, pragmatic reasoning. Like any borderline Asperger’s computer wiz, none of this philosophizing ever crosses his mind. He just can’t see how others would not be equally turned on by the multitudes of chess.
Where Computer Chess gets it right is in its portrayal of a group where nobody knows anything but everyone is too intelligent and filled with brainy hubris not to just make it up as they go along. Computer Chess creates a faux dystopian world where everyone, except the hippie retreat-goers doing exercises next door, knows that we are entering into a computer-driven society. The confusion surrounding this movement is mocked as much as it is anticipated. One can’t help but wonder if Bujalski’s only goal is to needle at the nerdy types who ushered in the revolution. If that’s the case, then all the elements added to make us “think” – such as the conversation with a computer wherein one character asks, “Where is your soul?” – are just red herrings and non-sequiturs. Because nothing is organic or intended to be, Computer Chess itself becomes as much a rabbit hole of non-answers as a broken computer program refusing to play the correct chess moves.
Without creating cardboard versions of movie nerds, Computer Chess manages to be an enjoyably zany, if ultimately hollow, experience. Bujalski walks a line that might in other hands have fallen too far on the side of contrivance, yet his resistance to telling a traditional story has its pleasures without allowing too much in the way of emotional response. You have to contemplate how a straight-forward competition film within this exact world might have better captured the place and time, while adding more tangible characters to probe. As it is, Bujalski’s film feels memorable, if not entirely satisfying. [B]