Total commitment. That's what separates a bulls--- artist from a real one. Andrew Bujalski's strange, surreal and extremely low budget comedy 'Computer Chess' doesn't have all that much in terms of story or strong character arcs, but it more than makes up for this in narrative and production chutzpah. This tale about a cheap hotel conference of early 1980s computer programmers is like a bizarro version of a Christopher Guest film, loaded with deadpan humor and odd tangents. If you can get on its wavelength (and that takes a little work) you may find yourself a champion of this small gem of a picture.
I call it low budget, but it isn't lo-fi. Among its gimmicks is a decision to shoot entirely on period black and white video. For tech fetishists, this means a thick, rich shake of split-screens, wipes, blocky chyron text and light burns. This fealty to the look and feel extends to the hair, costumes and thick, blocky eyeglasses that are so hardcore geeky that they aren't and never will be back in style.
The programmers have assembled for their annual computer chess programming competition. The deal is that the programs will play against one another, with their coders plugging in info and moving the pieces on a board as directed. The most notable contenders include a team with a woman on it (!), a team whose computer seems to "want" to play opposite a human and an unaffiliated individualist whose room reservation was lost and therefore spends the evenings walking the hotel hallways like some sort of specter.
This character is among the first to run into a different group at the hotel, an "est"-like couples encounter group that features a lot of deep breathing and, officially sanctioned or not, group sex.
The themes of technology vs. humanity inherent in the twin groups is, blessedly, not that overdone. Indeed, 'Computer Chess' never allows itself to get too heavy. Its principle interest seems mainly to entertain in its shaggy dog style, hanging back and taking in the broad view as its slightly loopy characters and their machinery interact. As the final act approaches the film takes a welcome jump into the surreal as the notion of a "sentient machine" presents itself.
What's odd about 'Computer Chess' (well, ONE of the things that's odd about 'Computer Chess') is how it would appear at first to be a run and gun quickie production. My guess is that there's more forethought than meets the eye, at least from a technical point of view. There are a number of aesthetic flourishes that, with these cameras, would need to be done while shooting. These are not post-production decisions added to spice things up, they're all there for a reason. (What that reason is is something far beyond me.)
I love movies that refuse to get stuck in a box, so a dreamy, daffy tale about humongous computers playing chess against one another is going to speak to me. If straight-ahead narratives and conventional story arcs are your bag, this one is not for you.
‘Computer Chess ‘premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.