There’s currently a wealth of cinema depicting our technological future. One only has to look back through 2013’s offerings to see this: films like Elysium, After Earth and Oblivion all present a future in which our lives have been dramatically impacted by advancements in the technical sphere. Indeed, even Spike Jonze’s Her, released on Valentine’s Day this year, investigated our relationship with technology in a very recognisable future. In short, we are always looking ahead.
With this in mind, the new film from Funny Ha Ha director, Andrew Bujalski, represents a divergence from the norm indeed. Instead of looking forward, it delves into our technological past; a period piece celebrating both the earliest machines and our naïve and cautious attitudes towards our new computerised allies. Computer Chess follows the events of an American computer conference over the course of one weekend in the early 1980s. The film transports us to an era in which the human race are on the cusp of achieving a huge breakthrough in artificial intelligence: creating computers that can not only defeat each other, but also defeat humans at chess. One might think that a scenario such as this would occur within the corridors of power, but instead we join our programmers in a dated hotel in California. The conference attracts all manner of people- from competitors and programmers to those who simply want to observe the forthcoming apocalypse that will ‘inevitably’ accompany this surge in A.I. However, complications occur when a philanthropic meditative-therapy class arrives at the hotel and their spiritualist, life-embracing attitudes are brought face-to-face with the cold, hard analytical minds of the computer conference.
With all these dense, existential anxieties bubbling beneath the surface, it’s astonishing how funny the film can be. The conference leader, Pat Henderson (Gerald Peary), is wonderful to watch on-screen, providing countless “David Brent-isms”. Perhaps the best of these comes as he talks to the camera about some of the ways in which this year’s conference differs from the last one: “We have something new this year: we have a lady that’s competing. Way in the back corners. I’m happy about that too, she’s welcome.” The charismatic enigma Mike Papageorge (Myles Paige) also provides ample comic relief as he assumes the role of the conference’s maverick vagrant, wandering the hotel’s corridors. The unsung hero of the film is without a doubt English computer programmer Les Carbray (played flawlessly by newcomer James Curry) who plays the role with such honest conviction that it’s hard not to get swept into the world of the programmer. Curry delivers one of the highlights of the film in the form of Carbray’s ‘three scotch method’; a calculated rule for consuming the right amount of whiskey whilst coding. “A man on three scotches,” he says, “could program his way out of any problem in the world.”
There’s a substantial amount to say amount the cinematography too, which can almost be described as ‘experimental’. Viewing the film on Blu-ray makes for an interesting watch, bringing the vintage and- at times- totally surreal aesthetics to the foreground of the film. Computer Chess was shot on a Sony AVC-3260 video camera- a model from 1969- which creates some interesting visual effects. It’s so refreshing to watch a director prepared to sacrifice his place in the current wave of high-definition fetishism for the sake of creating something nostalgic, original and beautifully bizarre like Computer Chess. In fact with the constant references to the cameras used, their inadequacies and their tribulations, Computer Chess is as much a love-letter to the development of film itself as it is to the development of technology.
The level of authenticity that Bujalski achieves is in the film is quite remarkable and whilst this is partly due to the cinematography, it also runs deeper than this. It can be attributed to Bujalski using very few career actors- the main cast consists of a jumbled bunch of novelists, film critics, chocolatiers, editors and computer programmers themselves, most of them in their first cinematic role. This authenticity and believability is perhaps why the film becomes so disturbing during its more surreal moments (of which there are plenty…)
Computer Chess is an enigma. It’s wonderfully odd, whilst at the same time making for an incredibly compelling, relatable watch. After all, the anxieties woven throughout the narrative are all, in some sense, issues we face today. Anxiety over these new machines and their power, the unknown world of the encounter-therapy group and even the inevitable forthcoming technological revolution and the ‘old world’ it will leave behind (one the malfunctioning machines is, cleverly, named ‘Tsar’). At the most basic level, Computer Chess provides both a celebration of our past and the technological blueprints of our future.
Computer Chess (2013), directed by Andrew Bujalski, is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK by Eureka Entertainment, Certificate 15.
This review is published in association with The National Student.