Computer Chess: Sundance Review

Computer Chess

U.S.A. (Director and screenwriter: Andrew Bujalski)

An existential comedy about the brilliant men who taught machines to play chess – back when the machines seemed clumsy and we seemed smart. Cast: Patrick Riester, Myles Paige, James Curry, Robin Schwartz, Gerald Peary, Wiley Wiggins.

This resurrection of early video technology to portray a 1980s techie event is good for a laugh. But just one.

Andrew Bujalski’s latest, about a weekend chess tournament between man and machine, was shot with clunky video equipment from the same bygone era it portrays.

Computer Chess is an enervating stunt, a video film about the early days of verite video production shot in black and white with ancient PortaPak equipment. The project’s single accomplishment lies in making it easy to believe that it was shot in 1980, so spot on are not only the technique but the awful haircuts and wardrobe of the nerdy characters. Unfortunately, writer-director Andrew Bujalski’s latest is as deadly dull as the event it covers, a weekend chess tournament between man and computer, and will be of interest only to the snootiest of specialist festivals and venues.

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The appeal of watching fuzzy, boxy monochrome visuals lasts only a few minutes, long enough to be sure that this isn’t material shot more than three decades ago at some tacky hotel but a shrewdly effected re-creation, right down to the spectacle of watching another cameraman toting a big old Sony video camera around a conference room full of men (and one lone woman) assembled to assess how close computers have come to being able to beat a chess master.

Actually, film critic and academic Gerald Peary is pretty funny as the windily arrogant conference chairman confident he can still beat anything technology throws at him. But it very quickly becomes clear that all we’re in for is a bunch of boring and, inevitably, dated technical and theoretical arguments about ongoing developments in the computer world, along with a few chess matches that are excerpted in ways that offer no insight or, God forbid, tension.

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Basically the film consists of a bunch of techies in white shirts and glasses laboriously discussing their views, exchanges you get the feeling the filmmaker thought would come off as humorous. Lending credence to the theory that this was intended as a comedy are some silly scenes with an unconvincing self-help group whose sessions overlap with those of the computer chess bunch, a running gag about a boorish guy with no hotel room who has to crash somewhere different every night and, most excruciatingly, an interlude in which a libidinous couple tries to get the nerdiest guy in the group to swing.

As a faux time capsule, then, Computer Chess is good for an initial chuckle. But it’s hardly a video equivalent of The Artist, a successful rehabilitation in its own right of an antique technique.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Next)

Cast: Patrick Riester, Myles Paige, James Curry, Robin Schwartz, Gerald Peary, Wiley Wiggins

Director: Andrew Bujalski

Screenwriter: Andrew Bujalski

Producers: Houston King, Alex Lipschultz

Director of photography: Matthias Grunsky

Production designer: Michael Bricker

Costume designer: Colin Wilkes

91 minutes