Andrew Bujalski’s swimmingly strange and dense fourth feature, “Computer Chess,” is a valentine to all things analogue, a burlesque of masculinity, a stoner comedy, a New Age satire, and a contemplation of artificial intelligence. Taking place across a weekend tourney for teams of computer programmers dead-set on creating software that can beat humans at chess, the movie is flush with odd characters. When the first images shimmer onscreen, it feels for a moment, until you get used to the look, not that you’re seeing a time capsule, but are in fact transported to the 1980s, dropped right into the middle of this ratty, perhaps haunted motel, witnessing the slightly self-conscious dorkiness of computer whizzes caught on rudimentary, ghosty, silvery Sony video that a community college would have used to record a basketball tourney or a water district meeting. At first, the film looks like it wasn’t even made, that it just happened, and sat, shedding magnetic flakes on a closet shelf for decades. But along with a visual grammar that seems to be inventing itself as the film goes along—including blown takes, jumps in sound recording, inexplicable traveling shots and mismatched shots—it also becomes apparent that “Computer Chess”’ deep-ecology tech comedy is completely under control, never sacrificing an innate, lovely weirdness. Even the furnishings echo down the years, and not always to nostalgic joy: dinky digital watches, overhead projectors, brand names like Commodore and Zenith, the hard, plastic, hollow report of ancient keyboards clacking, worn and witnessed lumpish lads in Sansabelts, many with suspect mustaches. The men onscreen aren’t just “nerds” from a safe distance, historically, esthetically, they’re a dozen kind of so-male duffers and bluffers and mopers and dopers. They’re clever but not wise, filled with observations like “Man, on three Scotches, he could program his way out of any problem in the world.” The loopy existential comedy of “Computer Chess” reaches a blissful climax that only the film’s ugly, longhaired mash-faced stoner of a cat that wanders the motel’s creepy corridors could have predicted. By the end, it seems not only to have swallowed its own tail but also to have invented itself whole with but a C: prompt and a blinking cursor. With Wiley Wiggins, bearing a lip caterpillar for the ages, Gerald Peary as the dorkiest of control freaks, Patrick Riester, Myles Paige, Gordon Kindlmann and Robin Schwartz. 92m. (Ray Pride)
“Computer Chess” opens Friday, September 27 at the Music Box. The 7:15 shows on September 27 and 28 will include a Q&A by Bujalski and others involved with the film, moderated by Ray Pride. The trailer is below.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.