Movies about the past, if they’re any good, tend to express some sort of anxiety about the present. By that measure, it’s not difficult to see at a glance what prompted indie filmmaker Andrew Bujalski to make Computer Chess, which is set in an unspecified year that looks to be roughly ’80 or ’81. The first thing that catches the eye is the film’s unusual look: Where Bujalski’s previous no-budget features—Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation, and Beeswax—were all shot on 16mm film, Computer Chess is unmistakably video. Not digital video, though. Bujalski went to the trouble of digging up vintage black-and-white Sony tube cameras, giving the movie a dull antisheen that genuinely makes it look like an industrial training film from that era. (Pablo Larraín’s ’80s-set Chilean drama No did something similar earlier this year, but Computer Chess makes that film look resplendent by comparison.) The movie is defiantly analog, but it’s set at the historical moment when digital was just beginning to assert itself, with home computers and compact discs only a few years away. And that tension is reflected in its very structure, which tosses programmers and post-hippies together in a shabby hotel over the course of a single, extremely bizarre weekend.
The programmers are in town for an annual convention in which teams from the computer-science departments of various universities—MIT, Caltech, etc.—pit their latest chess programs against each other in a round-robin tournament. Early scenes seem to promise a hilarious comedy of manners (or lack thereof), as in-fighting breaks out among longtime rivals, and matches degenerate into sheer confusion. (One inexplicable, suicidal move by a program prompts its author to ask a colleague, “Is there any possibility that this is, uh, some kind of, uh, very advanced…?” The question is too absurd to even finish.) Bujalski has done an amazing job of casting actors, from professionals like Wiley Wiggins (Dazed And Confused) to animator Bob Sabiston and film critic Gerald Peary, who perfectly match the film’s pseudo-unmediated visual style. Back then, being socially awkward didn’t lead to a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome or talk of “the spectrum”—people were just nerds and went about their nerdy business without a trace of self-consciousness when among other nerds. Had Computer Chess been content to stick with this observational mode, it probably would have made a terrific period satire, sharp but affectionate.
Instead, it turns out to be a terrific… something else. The computer-chess tournament continues, but the camera increasingly drifts away from the action, as do some of the characters. An unaffiliated programmer (Myles Paige) whose room reservation was lost spends much of the movie wandering the hotel hallways at night, where he encounters a disturbing number of stray cats. Another computer geek (Patrick Riester) gets invited into the room of a middle-aged couple (Chris Doubek and Cyndi Williams), who none-too-subtly suggest the possibility of a ménage à trois, scaring the terminally shy kid out of his wits. The couple is at the hotel as part of an encounter group, led by a serene African man, that spends the weekend engaged in rituals that do goofy things like re-create the birth experience. And even as that aspect of the narrative gets ever more touchy-feely, Riester, working with the convention’s sole female programmer (Robin Schwartz, having great fun with the role of the token girl who’s treated like a unicorn), discovers that the issue with his team’s program seems to be that it doesn’t want to play chess against other computer programs. It only gets interested when the opposing moves are made by a human being.
Thankfully, Bujalski is too canny a filmmaker to construct some lumbering thesis. The dichotomy is there, commenting astutely on today’s uneasiness with the ways in which virtually everything is now reducible to ones and zeroes, but it’s buried under plenty of free-floating, found-object weirdness. In every way that matters, Computer Chess defies easy categorization. It’s the year’s most singular and adventurous movie to date, to the point where it feels not so much original—a word that conveys a strong sense of craft—as it does “isolated,” as in a mutant strain of a virus. What’s more, it’s fun, generating pleasure not from canned jokes or clichéd plot twists but simply from a sense of unhindered freedom. After having been burdened for a decade with the unhelpful “mumblecore” label, Bujalski has detonated a neutron bomb underneath the expectations it engendered. It’s impossible to guess what he might do next, and that’s damn exciting.