Andrew Bujalski’s films have always been innately concerned with words, their slim plots orbiting around bits of verbal subterfuge and emotional sublimation, placing a heavy focus on things left unsaid. It’s fitting, then, that he reaches a career high point with Computer Chess, a movie which sits at the nexus between spoken and written language, the latter mostly of the programming variety. Full of introverted professionals striving for mechanistic impassivity, while in turn trying to impart machines with the ability to approximate active human thought, it’s a unique, intriguing work, one that fittingly obliterates any residual “mumblecore” associations while detailing the depth of the director’s singular oddball vision.
Documenting three days at a computer chess tournament held inside a dreary hotel, Computer Chess starts off in the same mode as Bujalski’s previous efforts, full of leisurely paced conversations laced with passive-aggressive backbiting, befitting this crowd of socially deficient tech geeks engaged in active competition with one another. Yet unlike the mossy green palette of Beeswax or the affectless black and white of Mutual Appreciation, the visuals are rooted to a singularly complex aesthetic, which incorporates a newly liberated camera, complex mise-en-scène and one major defining touch. Summing up all this awkwardness in a single formal masterstroke, the director shoots in fuzzy black and white on a ’60s-era consumer-grade video camera, giving the whole production the air of some ancient artifact rescued from a public-access TV vault.
The motive behind this distinctive technical choice seems to shift as the film gradually abandons its initial drab realism (and by extension the down-to-earth simplicity that’s defined all of the director’s prior work), choosing to play out across its own sublime wavelength. It’s a transition that occurs through the accrual of successive bits of weirdness: computers appearing to flirt with sentience, a group of middle-aged hippies showing up for a conference led by an African guru, the hotel beginning to fill up with particularly fluffy cats. The effect mirrors the actual events of the tournament, as all these carefully calibrated, supposedly logical machines steadily fall victim to glitches and ill-considered moves, pointlessly sacrificing queens or chasing after pawns. In this context, the inconsistencies and oddities that infiltrate the movie start to seem like intentionally inserted bugs, with technical hiccups, bizarre shot choices, and streaking, haloed images colluding to form a film dominated by visual and narrative dysfunction.
So though Computer Chess seems, on a basic level, to be exploring similar issues of interpersonal relationship to Bujalski’s earlier films, it pushes those fixations to a much deeper, stranger place. One programmer equates computer malfunction to human confusion, both consequences of intensely complex systems falling victim to a few bad connections. Consistent with the flaw-based focus, such behavioral issues dominate the action, from the talented visionary whose odious personality undermines his chances at success, to the shy student, Peter (Patrick Riester, playing the closet thing the story has to a protagonist), who unsuccessfully struggles to break out of his shell. Despite a basic understanding of the link between computational power and logical precision (someone predicts that, in the future, computers will be used for “dating”), the characters here fail to see that the power of these machines lies as much in their power to seed dialogue and connection as in their infinite mathematical capabilities.
At this point in time, the teeming, unbounded global network these machines will one day engender is only a dream, and within this universe even the most basic chances for rudimentary personal connection are ignored at every opportunity. On some level, this haplessness suggests a fantastical comedy of errors simmering beneath the film’s quiet surface, with the silent computers, their active participation confirmed through some sci-fi moments and one memorable POV shot, struggling to unite the humans that operate them. The humans respond by squandering their potential common ground, fumbling every opportunity to push beyond their individual mindsets, a condition that allows for both transfixing drama and lots of understated jokes. This constant sense of humor helps assure that the film’s success doesn’t hinge on any specific schematic thesis, and connects blissfully with its many strains of funky weirdness, from the mysterious woman who loiters outside the hotel lobby to the Defense Department spooks who may be lurking about the competition, searching for technologies with possible military applications.
Foremost among these weird subplots is that of the hippie contingent, which by night occupies the same conference room that the computer geeks do during the day, using it for hokey birth-simulation exercises and primal-scream therapy. There’s an essential conflict between the expansive philosophy of this group, seeking enlightenment via absolute communion with nature and feeling, and the lonely mental explorers holed up in their hotel rooms, spending their nights staring into the inky abyss of primitive CRT monitors. Neither side recognizes the inherent value of the other, a discrepancy that gets summed up as one of the hippie couples attempts to hustle Peter into a threesome, the wife setting the mood by bemoaning the narrow limits of his square existence, the futility of living life trapped inside a 64-square grid. Peter explains that the grid is actually the opposite of restrictive, a liberating system containing endless possibilities, with the amount of potential chess games somewhere close to 10 to the 128th power. Computer Chess floats freely between these two ideologies, comprising both rigid, cerebral cinema and goofy experimental playfulness, its mysteries growing stranger and deeper as it progresses.