Review: Computer Chess

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Director: Andrew Bujalski
Rating: 4 out of 5 checkmates. This film is perfectly odd and interesting, like nothing I’ve ever seen.

My beloved Film Forum. Sure, we have our indie fare, our subdued foreign dramas and our series’ of classics. But never have I seen a movie quite like Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess, not at our little non-profit art house nor anywhere else. It is a gem of weird mumblecore glory, mumblecore being the term given to Bujalski’s apparently signature tendency to film endearingly awkward characters. And if the cast of Computer Chess was anything, it was awkward and endearing.

The film takes place over one weekend in 1980, at a computer chess programming tournament in a hotel which nearly serves as a character itself, harboring randomly roaming kitties and bearing the weight of not just one strange group but two, the other being a couples therapy group which adds another comedic layer of discomfort to the film. My favorite thing about this film though is that it is a subtly innovative and sly period piece. It is truly the first movie I’ve ever seen that you can feel, not emotionally so much maybe but physically– shot on video and in black and white, the texture is palpable and you feel like you’re watching found footage. The film is less of a story and more of a portrait, a snapshot, and a fossil if you will, of what technology was then as these characters are standing on the precipice of what their bulky computers and chess programs would one day become. A huge theme was man versus machine, as well as maybe even what it means to be man in the first place, as we see strained communication that is not only funny but also deeply telling.

The film is at once hyper-realistic but with moments of surrealism sprinkled throughout, including an abrupt shift to equally-grainy and temporally accurate color video and a finale which is particularly ripe with talking points; ultimately, are the lines between human and computer being blurred for these individuals, finding themselves in loops, seeing people as computers, computers as people? I think these questions and more about the nature of artificial intelligence are certainly there if you want to ask them. Or, you can just laugh at the mounting absurdity while marveling at the technological evolution that is foreshadowed. I think the fact that this movie gives both options to the audience is something to be applauded; if you’re at least willing to immerse yourself in a movie which is unusual, unconventional, and sometimes uncomfortable, then Computer Chess is 90 minutes well worth your time. It was at Sundance and the Berlinale, giving it well-deserved festival cred.

It is by far one of the most rich and interesting pieces of filmmaking I’ve ever seen. It is a film of so many dualities, both utterly simple and immensely complex, with an attention to detail that captures a specific (albeit strange) time and place, with grace, oddball humor, and a sense of wonder that taps into our own awareness of just how far we have come. I’m definitely more interested now in seeing Bujalski’s other films (including Mutual Appreciation and Funny Ha Ha), and if you want to catch Computer Chess, it is playing at Film Forum through next Tuesday (July 30th)

Link to the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NuGT_L13bQ8

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