CAPSULE: COMPUTER CHESS (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Andrew Bujalski

FEATURING: Patrick Reister, Robin Schwartz, Myles Paige, Gerald Peary

PLOT: In the early 1980’s, computer programmers gather in a hotel to compete in a computer chess tournament.

Still from Computer Chess (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Computer Chess has a few bizarre moments and boasts oddly creative editing techniques that make it worth mentioning on this site.  However, the weirdness is too mild to be seriously considered for the List.

COMMENTS: Witness the birth of the cyborg, the collision of man and machine. The 1980’s were the decade that saw the explosion of the tech industry. With the acceleration of hardware design and subsequent rapid development of more efficient calculations by programmers, the initial platform of humble computers created during this time period blossomed exponentially within a very short time frame. The movie Computer Chess, which takes place in this era, is as close an analysis as we are going to get about the rise of modern tech-culture and the consequences that we may face (or already face) because of it. Computer Chess presents its take with exuberant humor and smudges of dark trippiness.  In other words, welcome to geek heaven!

The movie’s minimal plot concerns a group of early techies competing in a chess tournament for a cash prize, only the moves are determined by computer programs and not the players themselves. Besides the tournament action, scenes are filled with philosophical conversations about programming, the future of computers, and human nature. The artful editing (cracks and glitches), set design (Lynchian hallways full of cats), and the physical appearance of the participants are some of the movie’s strengths in the weird department, offering a balanced tone of subtle eeriness and quirky humor. The on-screen font signifying the different stages of the event gives the picture a retro-technological vibe, while the programmers wear thick-rimmed glasses and consume drinks like Scotch and red wine.

Peter (Patrick Reister), the central protagonist, acts as a sort of human calculator, staying up for days at a time trying to debug the flaws in his computer program, while his mentor, a seemingly stable family man who has brought his wife and kid along to the tournament, guides him through the fiasco while reminding him not to let his own personal ideas interfere with the process of fixing the problems. Peter remains completely focused, obsessing to the point where each consecutive scene makes him appear less human. The sole female participant in the tournament shows him considerably more attention than she does the others, and this seems to have no effect on him at all; his face is expressionless and contemplative at all times. Sharing the same space as the tournament competitors is a spiritual marriage counseling group led by a soulful and charismatic African man. The group represents the purely humanist side of the scenario, as the aging and uncomfortably erotic couples avoid scientific notions of progress, standing opposite the nerdy and repressed machine fetishists competing for mathematical dominance. One scene shows the couples fondling warm loaves of bread while they moan together in ecstasy: a starkly humanistic counterpoint to the exacting and calculated behavior of the chess competitors. A sense of unity is developed between these two paradigms through a metaphor likening the movements of people to the movements of pieces on a chess board, signifying the absurdity of the vast and chaotic mathematical outcomes within the two.

From an early point in the movie, there is a central message given about the definition of human consciousness and how it translates to the creation of artificial intelligence, and it’s precisely during the resulting conversational junctions between characters when vague but powerful feelings of unease begin to surface. This hyper-modern anxiety is fully embodied by Peter, who is competing in the tournament but having trouble getting his computer to work properly. The black and white picture and utterly bizarre snippets of alien-synthesizer can sometimes recall other computer/science films such as ’s Pi, but instead of giving us a manic character study about obsession we are given a series of quiet, somewhat dark suggestions that these calculating machines we depend on for all sorts of human needs are actually entities. Luckily, the heaviness of these concepts is delightfully balanced with oddball humor and ample substance abuse. The movie even dips into meta-fiction a few times, making references to the conceptual dynamics between digital and analog technologies (the guy in charge of filming the tournament tells the cameraman not to point it at the sun), and it is effective because we already know where the technology is headed—to a place where boundaries between people and machines appear to grow thinner by the second. Today, one doesn’t have to be geeky to have a deep relationship with a computer, or a camera for that matter.

A single scene is shown in color, in which the compellingly off-putting (albeit humorous) moocher/programmer Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige) searches his mother’s home for money that he owes some of the other programmers. The picture abruptly changes back to black and white, triggered by the vocals of Pat Henderson (Gerald Peary), who recites the phrase, “lost in a loop.” The theme of looping, previously mentioned in a stoned conversation between the team members in a hotel room, could be seen as a convergence of human cognition and mechanical calculation. Key philosophical questions are raised about the nature of the human brain and its relationship to computer technology—thinking machines. The relevance of these kinds of philosophical inquiries is powerful in an age where technology has come to define what a person is, whether it’s through the use of cell phone apps or social networking profiles.

The ending is pleasantly funny and wickedly surprising with an insane punchline that has miles of implications, both about the main character and about the future of humanity. It’s almost creepy in its quietly dry delivery, but is outrageous enough to remind the viewer not to take everything they just saw too seriously.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Dryly humorous and wonderfully weird, this is a preternaturally mundane evocation of early 80s nerdery and an almost scary peek at the history of AI.”–MaryAnn Johanson, Flick Filosopher (contemporaneous)

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