NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
Shot on an antique video camera from the 1970s and set sometime before 1984, writer-director Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess is a uniquely odd, insightful picture which seems almost like a mock-doc but evolves into an Alain Resnais-esque drama of time, space and the fractured intellect. It’s set at a gathering of teams and individuals involved in computers who pit their programs against each other in an annual chess tournament, with the winner set to go up against grand master Henderson (Gerald Peary). The haircuts, shirts and as-yet-unnamed Asperger’s mannerisms are perfectly of their time and milieu, as are the now-clunky seeming screen graphics and consoles, yet we have hints of a story as vast as WarGames as it touches on the way computers will evolve down to the present day – a plague of cats in the hotel and a lone hooker in the hotel suggest obsessions which will swamp the internet – and beyond. There are hints of dawning artificial intelligence in a temperamental program which plays dully against other machines but much more imaginatively when pitted against a human, but also of the way humans are being programmed as in a credibly nerdy yet cruel joke program devised over the weekend to chart the failure of one of the attendees in finding a place to sleep.
Sharp-suited, arrogant Michael Papageorge (MylesPaige) stalks the corridors trying to get crash-space because his room reservation has – even in a pre-digital age – been lost; a drug dealer (Freddy Martinez) hosts room parties and takes and interest in the precedings because he senses the importance of what seems like an absurd venture; everyone makes a fuss about Shelly (Robin Schwartz), the first woman to take part as one of the teams, in a manner that suggests the cringe-making side of tech geekery – she’s incidentally the player who spurs a program to up its game, suggesting it might be more capable of flirting with her than its bespectacled and sleep-deprived student custodian Bishton (Patrick Riester); Schoesser (Gordon Kindlmann), a superstar of the field, is mysteriously late to the party because he has been reputedly grilled by government agencies, and very visibly has a life (a wife and baby) outside the enclave none of the other seem to (Shelly makes an acute observation about the way Schoesser and his wife become King and Queen and prompt other people to make chess moves in the lobby, which Bishton misses as he gets hung up on teleportation); and the convention has to share the hotel with a touchy-feely couples encounter group seminar that might be a cover for swinging, as Bishton is made acutely uncomfortable by the advances of one insistent, ambiguous couple (at the end, he picks up the hooker,who opens up her skull and seems like a cyborg – one of several fantastical flashes that make this a science fiction film as well as a fiction film about science).
It’s mostly in bleary black and white (academy frame), with a hallucinatory colour sequence as Papageorge gets caught in a mental loop, but uses disorienting editing techniques to hustle along the improv-seeming chatter and render peculiar the obsessive, yet easily distracted characters. The climactic man vs machine game is a bust (we aren’t even told who won or if the game was finished). The grand master is jittery and irritated because he’s made a human mistake in booking the room for the week-end and assuming that includes Monday but then has to play with the distraction of the umming and hugging group in the same space. This seems to be a point in the unflappable machine’s favour, only there’s a sudden downpour as all the computers are being taken out to the vans and close-ups show water dripping off circuit-boards and a console sparking into flames, confirming that artificial intelligences are as much at the mercy of random circumstances as natural beings. One of the most original and ambitious movies of the year, made on a tiny budget with a great deal of care – and as full of mystery and awe as any star-spanning epic while it’s confined to the tackiness of an utterly anonymous hotel.