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Charming, funny and humane – Andrew Bujalski continues the mumblecore tradition with a film about the members of a chess tournament, set in the 1980s
Andrew Bujalski’s new film, Computer Chess, is a nostalgic nod to a more innocent time when computers took up entire rooms, men wore clip-on ties unironically and women went nowhere near anything that plugged in unless it was a vacuum cleaner. Bujalski gets the period details obsessively spot on, but the costume drama precision is almost a red herring as he is doing a lot more here than recreating a slice of history. He is talking about our relationship to technology and his relationship to cinema.
The film, set circa 1980, takes place in a faceless motel where two conventions are happening simultaneously: the computer chess programmers who are pitting their computers against each other in a chess competition, and a couples therapy group whose members re-enact their own births and aggressively rip apart loaves of bread whilst aiming for orgasmic enlightenment. In a sense both camps are just as uncomfortable in their own bodies, and both are seeking transcendence.
The geeks cushion themselves from the world with their rational intellect while the self-helpers eschew empirical knowledge for feelings. In one excruciating scene, a couple invite Peter (played brilliantly by Patrick Riester) to their room for sex. Peter’s malaise contrasts with the touchy-feelies who pretend to be at home in their skins when really they are just using their openness to get it off with strangers. The clash of mindsets is hilarious but slightly disturbing for the complete misjudgement the swingers display for the gawky, virginal Peter. This scene also gets to the core of what Bujalski seems to be saying. Neither of these two extremes has the answers to the questions brought up in the film: What is a soul? What is love? And what is it to be human? He doesn’t come out and say it, but the impression is that Bujalski feels the answers to life’s Big Questions lie in a crucial interface between heart and head.
Computer Chess shares much with the mother of mumblecore, Bujalki’s 2002 film Funny Ha Ha and its successor Mutual Appreciation (2005). It is lo-fi, loosely improvised, people move awkwardly, connections between humans are fragile and often misunderstood, intellectual fluency is stunted by introversion and yes, there is mumbling. As in his previous films where characters sit around Rohmer-style in rooms talking about life, the nerds in Computer Chess do the same only with lines like, “Chess is not war, it’s victory” and “is there a difference between real artificial intelligence and artificial real intelligence?” When one character tells a bunch of fellow spliff-smoking competitors that the future of computers will be in “dating”. One of the others asks, “What? Computers dating each other?” It’s played for laughs but we are reminded how far we have come in accepting computers into our lives. We started out shaping them, but thirty or so years later they are shaping us.
The lone woman in the nerd camp, Shelly Flintic (Robin Schwartz) is referred to throughout as the ‘Lady from MIT’ (women really have come a long way since 1980). She has the detached intelligence of Funny Ha Ha’s Marnie (Kate Dollenmeyer) albeit in a bad haircut, huge specs and terrible Lady Di blouses. As with his previous films, Computer Chess uses mainly non-actors. Gerald Peary who is fantastically deadpan as Pat Henderson, the chess convention leader, is a film studies professor, film critic and author. The stiltedness of many of the performances adds to the feel of a pre-internet period before we happily revealed all on Facebook. It reminds us of a time when privacy existed, and when people who worked with computers were the minority. We are all geeks now and live our lives publicly through our computers.
The visual aesthetic of the film with its long takes and sometimes monotone lectures on the finer points of programming along with shots of men sitting on hotel sofas brings to mind the cinema verité of the Maysles Brothers’ Salesman and John Casavetes Husbands. Bujalski and his cinematographer, Matthias Grunsky, shot the film with analogue, Sony tube cameras made in the seventies, which could be seen as taking the nostalgia a bit far, but it elegantly adds to the period tone: the grain, the high contrast, the blurred edges, the weird light. Towards the end of the film a scene suddenly switches to colour while we follow one computer chess conventioneer Michael Papageorge (Miles Paige) out of the motel. Sound intermittently drops out of sync and in a few instances the screen splits in half. It’s all seemingly random but it works. Bujalski is having fun with the technology just like the computer whiz kids he is portraying on screen. Underneath the geeky exterior with its obsessive historical accuracy, lies a charming, funny, humane film. Maybe just like nerds in real life, when they stop talking about zeros and ones, start talking about love, and take off their specs, they are actually kind of cute and very funny underneath.