Off the Grid
By Matt Connolly

Computer Chess
Dir. Andrew Bujalski, USA, Kino Lorber

Midway through Computer Chess, Andrew Bujalski’s sui generis marvel of a film chronicling a chess software competition in the early 1980s, twenty-something programmer Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester) finds his professional ethos under scrutiny. He has been invited into the hotel room of Dave and Pauline (Chris Doubek and Cyndi Williams), a free-spirited middle-aged couple whose New Age-y retreat shares the same hotel as the software contest. Determined to crack through Peter’s terse, geeky reserve—mostly as a means of getting him in bed—the couple point to the stifling uniformity of the chess board that Peter spends so much of his life studying as he attempts to teach a computer how to best human beings at their own game. “Don’t you see how limited that is?” Diane asks Peter with regards to the 64 squares that predictably make up every chessboard. Peter doesn’t hesitate in his response: “No. It’s actually very complex when you start to think about it…as a programming problem. Just the number of possible games explodes exponentially each move. It’s close to the 10 to the 120th power, and to try to compute all of those games might take even longer than humanity would be around to do so.”

The brilliance of Computer Chess lies in the way Bujalski essentially follows Peter’s worldview while inverting its premises. On the surface, the film’s eccentric—at times downright baffling—narrative turns and freewheeling stylistic play seemingly speak to newfound anything-goes nuttiness in Bujalski’s filmmaking. After charting the romantic fumbling and interpersonal short-circuiting amongst the post-college set with exceeding subtlety in Funny Ha Ha (2002), Mutual Appreciation (2005), and Beeswax (2009), there’s something undeniably exciting about watching the filmmaker slip out of low-budget naturalism and embrace a wonky side little seen in his previous work. Yet Computer Chess doesn’t feel like some clattering bag of tricks and tics, tossed off in a calculated move to “change it up.” Bujalski may show a greater willingness to allow his stories to float into the upper regions of the narrative stratosphere, but Computer Chess never feels like anything less than the product of a coherent and extraordinarily confident vision. Built around a set of recurring themes and tropes—centrally, the disjuncture between technology’s promise of impersonal competence and the baffling, frustrating ways in which it replicates and magnifies the foibles of its human creators—the film dives headlong into surrealistic imagery and sci-fi dread while nevertheless existing within a recognizable intellectual and emotional system. That it still manages to retain a rich sense of mystery makes Computer Chess as unexpectedly haunting as it is satisfyingly brainy.

This is not to imply that Bujalski has jettisoned those qualities that made him not only a critical darling, but one of the “founders” of a certain mid-aughts independent film movement/moment. (Dare I write the dreaded m-word?) His penchant for capturing the intricacies of white male geek speak—the halting cadences, the strong undertow of passive aggression—is on full display here, as seen in an early scene where several of the key programmers sit at a panel. Moderated by supercilious chess aficionado Pat Henderson (Gerald Peary), the discussion quickly becomes a master class in one-upmanship, preening, and humiliation under the guise of “innocent” technological inquiry. The cloistered, almost all-male milieu of the chess programming tournament offers Bujalski more chances than ever to zero in on the pettiness and sweaty-palmed anxieties of men for whom victory in the competition allows for the sort of achievement and confidence they otherwise seem to sorely lack. (The film offers a few ribald exceptions to this rule, most memorably a pair of laidback competition spectators who offer their own thoughts on technological overreach in between sessions of pill-popping and weed-smoking.)

These insecurities extend to the opposite sex, as seen in the various men’s interactions with Shelly Flintic (Robin Schwartz), the first and only woman to compete in the competition. Henderson awkwardly acknowledges her multiple times throughout the film (“This is a team that’s got a lady on it. There she is”), while ne’er-do-well “independent programmer” Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige) slimily approaches her at a hotel soiree and declares that only she and he understand programming’s “feminine side.” It’s a moment layered with multiple motives, as Papageorge seems to simultaneously be hitting on Shelly so he can sleep with her, stay in her hotel room—as he is without one—and take a gander at her team’s computer equipment, which is being stored in her room. Shelly herself seems most interested in Peter, who enlists her assistance when his team’s chess software begins to malfunction. In one of the film’s more poignant sequences, Shelly knocks on Peter’s door and recounts a perception she had in the hotel lobby when the film’s various characters began to resemble to her the movements and strategies of a chess game. Attempting to use their common obsession as a means of getting closer, she gamely puts her own fantasies on display. Peter only stares back at her semi-blankly before seizing on her offhand reference to teleportation. When Shelly clarifies what she meant, Peter loses interest and closes the door.

If the results of the competition and Peter’s own professional and personal awakenings form central planks of Computer Chess, however, they do not begin to encompass its storytelling freedom. Bujalski utilizes the enclosed space of the hotel as a means to set up a range of encounters: failed sexual rendezvous; substance-fueled rap sessions on technology’s potentials and pitfalls; forays into faux self-realization and would-be personal epiphanies. Some of these end up forming wispy narrative threads, as seen in Papageorge’s tragicomic attempts to find a place to sleep after failing to secure a hotel reservation, or the ambiguous dealings of Peter’s advisor (Gordon Kindlmann), who may or may not be sharing programming information with rival teams and the federal government. Others merely float about in the film’s ecosystem, contributing less to any narrative progression than to Computer Chess’ ever-increasing tone of deadpan surrealism. (We haven’t got to the hoard of cats that roam the hotel’s halls and, in a particularly hilarious touch, invade the room that the allergic Papageorge finally secures for himself and a mysterious prostitute.) Though its fleet 90-minute running time speaks to Bujalski’s assured sense of pacing, one gets the sense after a while that Computer Chess could continue on indefinitely, mixing and matching programmers, couples’ retreat participants, hotel employees, and others in an infinite series of configurations. The film’s geographic and temporal limitations mirror Peter’s chessboard musings in their ability to produce evermore unusual pairings that nevertheless fit snugly within the confines of Computer Chess’ singular universe.

To achieve the film’s look, Bujalski and cinematographer Matthias Grunsky used a Sony AVC-3260 video camera and black-and-white tape stock from the late 1960s—a move that speaks less to period fetishization than to a seeming desire to imbue the film with an uncanny sense of at once being vividly present and standing at a remove, peering into a world not so much of a past era than of a separate cosmos. With a combination of tight static framings and occasional, elegant horizontal tracks, the camera sketches the hotel’s nondescript interiors with lo-fi wit. As the film moves towards an increasingly dreamlike space, Bujalski freely mixes this observational aesthetic with a bounty of stylistic quirks: split-screens; superimpositions; jagged, stuttering editing patterns; slow and fast-motion; a brief and memorable use of smeary color. These devices are initially attached to some character’s subjective state—a manifestation of a character’s drug-altered consciousness or mental frenzy—but eventually detach from any narrative referent, becoming manifestations of the film’s growing instability. Bujalski’s use of older equipment gives these devices a patina of DIY experimentation. Like the programmers he chronicles, Bujalski seems determined to push his imaginative limits here, vivifying his own cinematic aesthetic by cataloguing the possibilities of the medium.

Computer Chess offers period-specific riffs on the military potential of chess programming software, and occasionally includes winking nods to our current techno-saturated moment. (One character, for instance, insists that the future of computers lies in their ability to match romantic partners.) Ultimately, though, its interest lies neither in an exhumation of the past nor a covert commentary on the present, but in the creation of a self-contained universe within which our unruly relationship to technological progress can run wild. Again and again, characters encounter scenarios in which the promised division between the human fallibility and the promise of mechanized uniformity proves illusory at best. One character recalls a late-night “conversation” with his computer, in which artificial intelligence software reveals its origins in a place far more organic than the programmer thought possible. The finale of the chess tournament itself becomes overrun by a quasi-spiritual surge of groping hands and writing bodies. And when Peter finally takes his first real steps toward sexual initiation, the ever-present prostitute whom he invites back to his room reveals herself to be the keeper of the film’s most unsettling mysteries.

Bujalski’s ultimate point is not technophobic harangue, but an acknowledgment of how tentative and fraught our relationships truly are to the machines we claim exist to serve our dreams and desires—how those very dreams and desires become both replicated and altered by the technology we create to facilitate them. We may have a program to tell us where to go, but we’re still locked within that grid, shifting around and bumping into each other, the number of possible games exploding exponentially with each move.