Monday, August 5, 2013

Computer Chess

The only movie of the weekend with a clear (if slight) vision, mostly realized, is Andrew Bujalski's faux-documentary "Computer Chess," about a weekend tournament of computer chess programmers in the early 80's, at a hotel with an overabundance of stray cats. Bujalski films his footage in what one critic aptly described as "security camera style," grainy black and white, full of discontinuities and unintended effects. In other words, a perfect facsimile of the primitive camcorder used by the tournament videographer.

The film is a loving tribute to the look and mood of the early 80's, a very future-focused time when we were just beginning to contemplate the possibilities (for good and evil) of artificial intelligence. Bujalski's selected an apt soundtrack not of 80's pop but of eclectic recordings, many otherworldly, almost Klaus Nomi-like. He's also paying tribute to the first wave of computer nerds, and to nerds in general. Having attended my share of nerd-travaganzas, I believe he's captured the feeling of those weekends when we put life to the side and focus exclusively on winning computer chess matches (or whatever the activity may be), as well as the vague melancholy when the event ends and it's back to reality.

"Computer Chess" is a film of quiet, unassuming whimsy, but it has several big laughs. Many involve the efforts of upstart programmer Michael Papageorge (item 5 of the agenda on the overhead projector at the panel discussion that opens the weekend reads, "Controversial remarks - M. Papageorge") to weasel his way into a hotel room, or anywhere else to sleep (on the last day, one of the losing teams produces a computer algorithm of what room he's most likely to end up in). Even better is a set piece involving a sweet nerd named Peter, invited into the room of a married couple there for a cultish-sounding therapy retreat that's also taking place at the hotel. And I love that the tournament organizer proudly notes, "This is the first year we have a lady participating too. She's over in the corner, and she's welcome." Cringe-worthy, but great.

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