Monday, December 16, 2013

Modern Black and White Marathon: Computer Chess (2013)


In the TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, one possible route to the apocalypse was a computer chess program known as The Turk. This artificial intelligence program may have evolved into Skynet and caused our destruction. The programmers in Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess are a long way from this point. During the early 1980s, they arrive at a dingy hotel to test their programs' chess skills. The socially awkward guys may be working on the cutting edge of technology, but they’re hardly ready to take on the world. Instead, they bumble through various comic situations and are really unsure of themselves. Their awkward interactions remind us of a simpler time when computer programmers weren’t superstars. When having even one girl at this event is such a noteworthy achievement, you know we haven’t reached the heights of social success.

Computer Chess – Directed by Andrew Bujalski; Starring Kriss Schludermann, Tom Fletcher, Wiley Wiggins, Gerald Peary, Patrick Riester, and Myles Page


Shot in black-and-white in a home-video style, this film isn’t thrilling. The slow pacing is by design and fits with the theme, however. Its centerpiece is the oddball Michael Papageorge (Myles Page), who spends the event trying to find a room. He’s rejected frequently and ends up sleeping in random locations. Near the end of the weekend, the programmers even plot an algorithm showing all of his travels around the hotel. Papageorge has little time dealing with chess, and that matches Bujalski’s limited interest in the subject. He’s more concerned with showing how the awkward guys struggle to interact with others. A couples group is also meeting at the same hotel, and there’s a cringe-inducing moment where a pair tries to seduce a young programmer. He sits on the edge of the bed and doesn’t seem to comprehend their goals until the action starts happening. While that moment induces a few chuckles, it goes on for a really long time in the 92-minute film.

Unlike Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation, this movie is purposely ugly in the vein of a low-rent documentary. Crudely designed headings appear on the screen, and the master of ceremonies awkwardly describes the proceedings. It’s hard to think of a better word to describe this story (and much of Bujalski’s filmography) than awkward. The set design and technology convincingly present the time period, and the programmers (including a nearly unrecognizable Wiley Wiggins) feel authentic. The challenge is finding an engaging story within this environment. Bujalski’s approach works great for 30 minutes, but extending it to a feature film is a challenge. There are plenty of silly touches, including the many cats hanging around the hotel. It’s the type of movie that’s going to charm a small group and alienate plenty of others. It’s hard to argue too strongly against either reaction, though mine drifts closer to the latter group. It’s interesting to watch Bujalski try something original, but it leads to an inconsistent experience.

8 comments:

  1. I had added this to my Netflix Instant queue are couple months back but hadn't gotten around to watching it yet. Sounds like it might not be what I was hoping for. I'll see when I eventually do watch it.

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    1. I've heard a lot of raves from bloggers and critics, so don't let my mixed opinion sway you. Karina Longworth had it on her best of the year. I really appreciate the style and look, but that only carried for so long for me. It's only 90 minutes and on Netflix, so I say give it a shot if you're curious about it.

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  2. Does not sound too exciting. When I saw the title and the pictures I thought it might be a documentary about the evolution about computer chess. Not that it is something I'm into, but it is probably a documentary I would have checked out.

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    1. Yeah, the chess setting is really just a backdrop to show the goofy characters. The set design and look are interesting, but I struggled to stay with a lot of it.

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  3. Have not seen it. Reading your article, the doc seems a bit slow. The reviews have been all over the place for this one. I suppose it's difficult to make chess exciting for an hour and a half.
    I enjoyed the doc Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011), but that was mainly interesting for the character study, rather than the board game.

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    1. It's actually a fiction film, and I can see why it's charming some critics. I just saw that it finished #8 in the Critics' Poll from Film Comment, which is pretty impressive. I wouldn't go that far, but I can see the appeal.

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  4. @Dan: Probably a common error, to mistakenly think it was a doc!

    I'll have to give those Film Comment lists a look on letterboxd, thanks for the info. I can see they did an End-of-the-Decade Critics’ Poll as well.

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    1. They're definitely worth checking out. I've been a subscriber to the print version for a really long time, and the year-end lists and coverage are one of the highlights. Their best-of-the-decade poll had some interesting choices!

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