Director Andrew Bujalski comes from the same low-budget New York scene that produced Joe Swanberg, whose most recent film was Drinking Buddies. I greatly enjoyed both films, but it’s fair to say that Bujalski has not gone in the same direction. Where Swanberg’s film was glossy and had stars, Computer Chess is determinedly retro-fashioned, avoiding well-known actors — avoiding in fact that kind of ‘star turn’ that looks so good on an actor’s CV — and utilising contemporaneous video technology in visualising its mid-1980s story of programmers and boffins holed up in a motel’s conference suite competing for the best computer chess simulator. In doing so, it’s easy to forget that this is a film from roughly 30 years later, though it does make it rather easier to imagine it transferring well to the small screen, given its Academy ratio and fuzzy lo-fi imagery. Therefore, it’s just as well that in the UK the film is being distributed by Eureka Video, a niche outlet who should be known to viewers for their fantastic Masters of Cinema range. In any case, the emotional affect is rather similar in both directors’ works, being focused primarily on interpersonal relationships in a way that largely avoids overt melodrama.
The story in Computer Chess, though, is difficult to categorise. It’s an ensemble piece that gives roughly equal weight to several different characters, who are split into teams for the competition, although there’s one independent operating solo, the self-consciously cool — and therefore gratingly egocentric — Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige). Michael holds himself aloof from the other (more overtly geeky) competitors, which is manifested primarily in his having lacked the foresight to book a room at the bland suburban motel where the competition is taking place. Gradually, however, one of the members of the star team, an awkward and shy young man called Peter (Patrick Riester), comes to prominence within the story, as he must try to figure out why his team’s computer is not achieving as well as hoped, receiving little effective help from his teammate Martin (Wiley Wiggins). There’s also even a romantic subplot of sorts for Peter, though it’s engagingly awkward and unforced.
Beyond this description of the plot’s set-up, I find myself grasping for generic descriptions for my tagging of this review. It’s a drama, but there are plenty of laughs in it too. The stakes are so low (for us as viewers) that the pleasure is not in which team wins the competition, so much as how they go about it, and the dramas they run into along the way. Commenting on the competition is the chess grandmaster whom the winning team’s computer will play at the end, and his pomposity becomes a running joke in the film (he is also played by film critic Gerald Peary, suggesting its own form of in-joke). I think the key to what the film is trying to do, though, is in the figure of Michael, who wanders the motel’s corridors by night trying to find somewhere to sleep, and in the process making connections amongst the various teams as well as with other residents of the motel. These latter include a consciousness-raising group seeking spiritual enlightenment in a peculiar touchy-feely swingers-y way, and the meeting between the two groups motivates some drama around the differences in emotional satisfaction as experienced (or rather, avoided) by the introverted programmers. There’s even a sort of hallucinatory moment of colour, like an epiphany, but a jagged one that doesn’t seem to resolve in anything.
It would be easy to suggest that Computer Chess is a bit of 80s nostalgia, but it doesn’t really come across that way. Beyond some of the haircuts and fashions and particularly those vast, chunky computers, there’s not really a focus on fetishising the past as you might get in a nostalgic period film — though one could argue the very technology used to make the film is a form of fetishism. Then again, this clunky period technology resists being used for the kind of 1980s we usually see in modern films (luridly coloured clothing, musical party sequences and the like) — it’s shot in black-and-white, but in a particularly unfocused and washed-out variety suggested the infancy of the technology used to make the film (as of that featured in the film). This is a story about people who happen to be working at a point relatively early in the development of computer programming and of artificial intelligence, making small but seemingly crucial advances on those fronts, but more than that learning to find some joy in their shared hobby, which had for so long been a solitary pursuit of a small number of individuals. The game they are making their computers play may enact the fall of empires, but through this they are almost creating a new one together. It’s charming.
Director/Writer Andrew Bujalski; Cinematographer Matthias Grunsky; Starring Patrick Riester, Wiley Wiggins, Myles Paige; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Tuesday 3 December 2013.