Never one to jump on anyone’s bandwagon, writer-director Andrew Bujalski ditches celluloid for video in deeply bizarre fashion with “Computer Chess.” An endearingly nutty, proudly analog tribute to the ultra-nerdy innovators of yesteryear, shot on ancient black-and-white cameras and centered around a weekend-long tournament for chess software programmers circa 1980, this quasi-mockumentary is easy to admire in spirit even when its haphazard construction practically defines hit-or-miss. The result is about as weird and singular as independent cinema gets, an uncategorizable whatsit that makes Bujalski’s earlier low-budgeters look slickly commercial by comparison. Loyalists will check it out.
Perhaps the most critically admired figure of the mumblecore movement, Bujalski hardly qualifies as a new voice at this point; remarkably, “Computer Chess” is his first picture to play Sundance, pointedly screening not in the dramatic competition but in the festival’s more experimental Next sidebar. The reason for this becomes immediately apparent as Bujalski, shooting in a boxy aspect ratio on old Portapak tape, deposits the viewer into a cruddy-looking monochrome world of bad hair, hideous fashions and enormous, tanklike computers, programmed by awkward young geniuses on the frontlines of an ever-escalating battle of human vs. artificial intelligence.
There’s an undeniable conceptual purity in using out-of-circulation technology to capture out-of-circulation technology, and for a decent stretch, the uncanny re-creation of a degraded ’80s aesthetic is funny and fascinating enough to sustain the satirical elements of Bujalski’s script. Presiding over the hotel-set tournament is Pat Henderson (amusingly played by film critic Gerald Peary), the smug chess master who will face off against the various machines, and whose opening remarks provide a taste of the long-winded tech-speak in store.
Among the quick-coding, algorithm-spouting geek brigade are experimental psychologist Martin Beuscher (Wiley Wiggins); Shelly Flintic (Robin Schwartz), repeatedly touted as the tourney’s first female participant; the belligerent Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige), who spends the film wandering from one hotel room to the next in an overextended gag; and shy, intelligent programmer Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester). One queasy highlight finds Peter crossing paths at the hotel with members of a zany free-love encounter group of the sort that proliferated during the ’60s and ’70s (the roughly pre-1984 setting is fairly elastic).
Focusing on the fairly unexciting tournament by day and the kinkier hotel-room shenanigans by night, “Computer Chess” is ultimately too slack and scattershot to work consistently well as a comedy; the mock-doc device deployed at the outset is dropped at a certain point in favor of no strong camera perspective in particular.
Yet for viewers attentive to the ideas beneath the surface, this idiosyncratic pic resonates as a portrait of socially awkward individuals who, in trying to devise mentally superior machines, are themselves never less than painfully human. It also offers a hint of how clunky and laughable our own state-of-the-art gadgets may look 30 years hence, expressing in form as well as content a healthy measure of skepticism toward the technology age. It’s precisely the defiant, old-school attitude one would expect from Bujalski, who made the film partly in jokey response to the many who wondered why he continued to work on 16mm rather than video.
The deliberately shoddy production includes a brief color sequence that seems to have no connection to the narrative, bearing out the randomness of the director’s methods. The actors rep an offbeat mix of pros and non-pros, including some real-life computer experts; the end credits and occasional onscreen text are cleverly rendered in what looks like a primitive Apple II typeface.