Computer ChessReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/05/13 22:34:34
SCREENED AT THE 2013 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON: I think I'm done with Andrew Bujalski. I've seen three of his four films, and even the one I kind of liked didn't really impress me. And while I can see some merit in the ones like "Computer Chess" that bore me to frustration, it's not enough. This thing is just not clever enough to go without a story.Sure, it sort of looks like it has a story: In the late 1970s/early 1980s, there's an annual convention where the developers of various chess-playing computer programs set their creations against each other round-robin style. The winner will play host and chessmaster Pat Henderson (Gerald Peary), although at the time, the idea that a computer could defeat a human being is ludicrous. Among the competitors are a team from MIT that includes Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester) and Tom Schoesser (Gordon Kindlmann); one from Cal Tech that includes Shelly (Robin Schwarts), the only girl in the tournament; independent operator Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige), who apparently hasn't booked a room; and a privately-funded team with Martin Beuscher (Wiley Wiggins). There's also a sort of swingers' group sharing the space, and... cats.
Bujalski and his cast of what are, for the most part, non-actors (Wiggins and Paige have prior credits but have been doing other things lately) create a few memorable characters, and a great many others that run together. As is often the case, there's a certain authenticity to their performances, especially since they are by and large editors, computer programmers, and others who can easily handle the retro-technical terms. Paige gets the most memorable character, with Papageorge just cynical and snide enough for his being thwarted to be entertaining but not quite enough to really get on the audience's bad side. Riester's Peter winds up drifting toward the center of the story, and he does project a likable everynerd quality.
Here's the thing, though - the tournament isn't so much an event that gives the film structure but merely bounds. There's nothing meaningful in how it progresses or ends; it merely defines the period of time when these fairly uninteresting (though occasionally amusing) characters happen to be in the same place. The contest ends when there are still twenty or thirty minutes of movie but precious little for anybody to do. Things grind along but there's never a particular feeling of accomplishing anything. Random elements like the cats and, well, stranger things are there to provoke a "that's weird" reaction.
Ah, but this sort of film isn't about plot but character, and theme. Bujalski does set up a sort of "it's real human contact that matters!" theme, both in ways that are clangingly obvious - when Peter and Shelly try and debug Peter's chess program, they find it doesn't respond when playing against other machines, but does with humans, so take a look at the girl beside you, kid! - and ways that are less so. The "encounter group", after all, is probably no closer to finding true connections than the folks pitting machines against machines, for instance. One programmer shirks the tournament to spend time with his family, and, of course, the programs don't stand a chance against human instinct. And while this isn't an unworthy message at all, it's vague and often related in stupid ways (although the idea that a chess program run on something like a Zilog Z80-based machine with about 4K of RAM can distinguish whether its opponent is man or machine and play cupid is an authentic 1980s-movie estimation of what computers could do).
And then there's the silly techno-fetishism that is the movie's production. As someone who still has an Atari 800XL in my basement ready to be hooked up at a moment's notice, I certainly can't complain about the unearthing of old equipment that shows up all over the place, but the choice to shoot the film on period-appropriate Portapak videotape is mostly annoying. The low-resolution analog haze it covers the image with doesn't create a sense of warmth or nostalgia; it's just a gimmick, one which intrudes into the narrative with cameramen using that same technology in-story so that the picture drifts between documentary/television pastiche and omniscient without the style signifying anything.Sure, it looks clever, and you can make it sound smart, but there's much less there than meets the eye. Set it thirty years ago and use weird cameras, but it's still just another movie about mumbling twentysomethings who don't actually do anything worth mentioning, put together with just enough skill to seem like something more.
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