Computer Chess (2013)

Bone-dry, deader than deadpan comedy that rambles its way through a weekend-long computer chess competition circa the early 1980s. There’s an almost lo-fi Robert Altman vibe to writer/director Andrew Bujalski’s style here. It’s a portrait of a place and a time that deals with a group of characters with no traditional lead among them. Bujalski free floats through partly improvised scenes that gently nudge forward a few loose, dreamy narratives about lost souls with big brains. There are some inspired strokes here, such as the decision to shoot exclusively with a 1970s model, black-and-white Sony video camera that gives everything a soft-focus, documentary-style look straight out of a time capsule. There’s also a fevered fascination here for this transitional period in technology. The personal computer was new, primitive and took two people to transport, but these were the instruments on which pocket-protector tech whizzes were writing (or learning to write) the future. And maybe the end of humanity, too, while they were at it.

Not that this film seems to offer much original pessimism about technology. Rather it reflects the weird 80s ambivalence about technology, when a computer was a mystifying thing that was either going to save us or kill us (we weren’t sure, yet). A brilliant chess-playing program might just be a Pentagon-appropriated war weapon in the near future—and a seemingly innocent programming tournament among major colleges in a modest hotel might be a place of fear and malaise.