Directed by Andrew Bujalski
Writer-director Andrew Bujalski’s fourth feature has the kind of early-80s setting that, in movies or elsewhere, typically gets played for cheap laughs, harvested for retro fashion, or resurrected for artistic reappropriation. But in putting to screen a community of brainy enthusiasts that most filmmakers wouldn’t consider portraying seriously, the deft, refreshingly original Computer Chess gets a cross-sectional, ingeniously scripted look at people and moments that all just happen to involve programming for sport, shot with old, weird, mesmerizing black-and-white video. The haircuts and suits aren’t even that bad, or the point.
In a motel with a small convention room, an annual chess competition kicks off, pitting one tailor-made program against another, as tended to and fussed over by participants of all stripes: academics and amateurs, students and grown men, the diffident, the cool-headed, the arrogant. The tournament’s progress sets the film on its track, overseen by a grandmaster emcee (and recorded by a videographer). But Bujalski’s circling, slightly off-kilter editing keeps us moving among the characters, disappearing into wormhole moments of motel-suite bull sessions or wandering among corridors looking for someone else who’s also still awake. A bowl-cut Brit espousing Scotch, an expressionless kid in glasses pulling all-nighters, an ornery arms-folding “independent” programmer named Mr. Papageorge, the sole female participant from MIT—ordinary people in these circles, in a cast that brings a creative mix to the table, or the monitor (a film critic, an actual professor, Wiley Wiggins, an editor and sometime actor, a writer).
As a foil to these analog warriors, Bujalski cuts in another group that’s using the same convention room, off hours: an “encounter”-style couples gathering, the kind where newcomers are put through a birth ritual and participants shout their own names. Adding to the period detail are abrupt split screens, afterglows from lights, and first-generation-PBS synthesizer burbles on the soundtrack. But the film isn’t really intent on re-creating a time so much as watching Peter, the sleepless young programmer (dead-on Patrick Riester), processing his way through confusing situations and inadvertent flirtations (“Did you see anything where two bodies came together and one would disappear?”), or a skeptical observer and mysterious outsider (Bob Sabiston), or Schoesser (Gordon Kindlmann, a professor at the University of Chicago), perhaps a bit of a directorial stand-in in this post-postgrad portrait, tuning in and out of the conference as he minds his wife and child, who almost seem to haunt the film.
In fact, a general eerieness persists in the motel’s perpetual night—the kind of heightened self-awareness in an in-between space that makes me think of an ice machine’s rumble down a carpeted hall. Stir in apparently pill-assisted hallucinations, random cats and folk ballads, and intimations of artificial intelligence far beyond checkmate (“I don’t think SAR wants to play with other computers...”) But perhaps the most otherworldly effect comes from the singular quality of Bujalski’s video, a jerry-rigged Sony camera of the sort that probably saw use in court depositions—a black-and-white whose soft texture and milky grayness belie a sense of the present and of presence that’s differently vivid from film. As Sabiston’s observer half-teasingly asks, “How does somebody end up being you?”
Opens July 17 at Film Forum