Film

Period Programming

Computer Chess’ Awesomely Odd ’80s Flashback

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COMPUTER CHESS IS AN ODD and wonderful little movie. Director Andrew Bujalski is best known for his contributions to the mumblecore canon (Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation); with Computer Chess, he brings that lo-fi approach to bear on a period piece that begins as a fake documentary about a computer conference, and fractures into something much stranger.

Computer Chess takes place over the course of one weekend in the early '80s, at a hotel where a group of programmers have gathered for a computer chess competition. All weekend, massive computers face off in chess matches, facilitated by teams of programmers who lug the clunky machines from room to room; the winning computer, at the end of the competition, will take on a human chess master. (Remember when people were reliably smarter than machines?) There's one woman at the conference, who's regarded with a combination of genial curiosity and lust, like a mascot everyone wants to have sex with. The rest are vintage programmers: white dudes in cheap pants and wide glasses, hairlines in full retreat. Anyone who grew up in the '80s with a computer nerd for a dad will recognize the aesthetic; it's so well captured that in the film's early scenes I had to double check that I wasn't watching a documentary.

The lo-fi feel is authentic: It was shot on ancient video cameras, and many of the actors have little or no previous experience (the biggest name on the bill is Wiley Wiggins), making them plausibly awkward as a bunch of socially stilted programmers.

Computer Chess ultimately wanders away from the mockumentary conceit, and in the process shrugs off any narrative obligations. The result defies description: a stoner period piece about computer chess? A metaphysical rumination on man vs. machine? An art film about technology? Whatever it is, it's worth seeing.

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