This surreal science-fiction comedy is rich and strange, and the best film of the year, says Indy Datta.
Andrew Bujalski’s remarkable new film, as good as any I’ve seen this year, opens with a series of fragments from interviews with programmers who are taking part in a computer chess tournament in a bland chain hotel somewhere in America in the early 80s. The footage is low contrast, low resolution black and white video – artlessly framed and lit. The actors fluff their lines, the rhythm and timbre of their speech is nerdishly unselfconscious. Caught unawares, you might initially mistake the film for a contemporary documentary record of a real tournament.
But then the picture gets a little clearer and a little sharper (although still recognisably shot on the same video stock as those interviews), and the view is of a parking lot, a gleaming chrome car bumper, a richly grey sky. The camera operator is fiddling with the zoom and focus, getting used to the operation of the camera. He is interrupted by the tournament organiser (chess master Pat Henderson, played by film critic Gerald Peary, one of many non-professional actors in the film, all of whom are excellent) who admonishes him not to point the camera at the sun, lest the intense light burn out the analogue video tube at its heart.
This is the first clear sign that the film we are watching is not a documentary: and from this point on that ostensible initial form is subject to progressively greater levels of subversion (albeit that the spine of the mock-doc form is always there, captured in ways that sometimes recall prime Altman). The cameraman himself starts to appear in vision, wielding the instrument that is supposedly capturing what we can see. At one point he is asked if he has been recording a conversation that we have been following; he shrugs – he has not. The narrative follows characters that a documentary cameraman could not possibly be following. Formally aggressive devices like glitchy jump cuts, split-screen and luminance reversals take the film’s visual style further away from any sense of documentary realism, culminating in a short segment shot on 16mm colour film, in which realism completely gives way to an unsettling Lynchian quality, the sound of dialogue unsynced with the actor’s lip movements, and their actions reversed and looped, as an elderly woman, the mother of maverick programmer Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige, who appeared in Bujalski’s debut, Funny Ha Ha, but whom UK distributor Eureka’s press notes identify as a “gardener and chocolatier”) asks us to consider the parable of the prodigal son.
And just as the film subverts its own visual identity, so it immediately starts to subvert its narrative identity. Relatively little of the brisk 92 minute runtime of Computer Chess is devoted to the progress of the tournament, and who wins is treated as of little immediate consequence. Instead, Bujalski’s multistranded narrative follows the comic misadventures of his characters both in and out of the tournament, also incorporating characters from a couples’ encounter group taking place in the hotel at the same time. Shy CalTech student programmer Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester) inadvertently finds himself the object of sexual fascination for one of the more liberated couples from the encounter group, while failing to notice flickers of romantic interest from Shelly (Robin Schwartz), the one female participant in the tournament. Papageorge’s room booking gets lost, and he ends up wandering the corridors by night, sleeping in stairwells, and discovering that the hotel is overrun by stray cats. A couple of mysterious observers of the tournament (one of whom is played by the novelist Jim Lewis, channeling Fat Don Draper) host dope and pill fuelled bull sessions in their suite – other characters drop by to talk about the nature of artificial intelligence, and whether their work has potential moral consequences – especially if funded by the military industrial complex (at this point, the cameraman playfully cocks the trigger of his camera and makes like it’s a gun – just one of the many seemingly throwaway moments in Computer Chess that tie in to the film’s themes).
The closest thing to a central plot concerns CalTech’s chess programme, TSAR 3.0, which surprises everyone at the tournament by apparently deliberately losing all its matches. TSAR’s programmer, Professor Schoesser (Gordon Kindlmann, a professor of computer science), scoffs at Peter’s idea that his purely heuristic algorithm can have any will of its own, but in the middle of the conversation, Bujalski cuts to a reverse, with a heavy circular vignette, from the point of view of the computer terminal – a cut that makes no literal sense (there were no webcams in 1980) – but which recalls, of course, the HAL point-of-view shots in 2001. Later in the film, it appears that TSAR might be running a reverse Turing test on its opponents, and refusing to play competitively other than against a human.
In one of the film’s first scenes, Pat Henderson notes that the first purported chess computer, the Mechanical Turk, was a fraud – a man in a box pretending to be a machine. The implications of TSAR’s apparent existential funk, alluding as it does to the entire history of sentient computers in science fiction film, bleed into the rest of the film. If computer programmes are just brute force number crunchers dumbly crunching the numbers human operators give them, are they any different from a man in a box? If a computer like Tsar can become sentient, can it legitimately ask us why we’re any different to itself? Does the “left-brained” computer programmer way of parsing existence run the risk of reducing one’s understanding of other people to the boxes they’re pretending to be in, or is that wishy-washy, touchy-feely “right-brained” bullshit? Computer Chess doesn’t presume to answer any questions, its mode is a more abstract anxiety (or, more accurately, quizzical and skeptical curiosity) about the issues it raises. But ultimately, if all that formal tricksiness draws your attention to the fact that the film is a box, does it amount to an evasion by the man inside it, or is it enough to be alert to the questions?
The film’s startling final pair of shots, a matching rhyme to that early scene where Henderson warns us not to look into the sun, is the closest Computer Chess gets to giving us an answer. You need to keep looking at the sun, you might not like what you see, it might blind you.
“Computer Chess” is on limited theatrical release today and is also available to download or view online from various outlets.