×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Computer Chess

An endearingly nutty, proudly analog tribute to the ultra-nerdy innovators of yesteryear, this quasi-mockumentary is easy to admire in spirit even when its haphazard construction practically defines hit-or-miss.

With:
With: Patrick Riester, Wiley Wiggins, Myles Paige, Robin Schwartz, Gerald Peary, Gordon Kindlmann.

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.

Popular on Variety

Computer Chess

Production: A Computer Chess production. (International sales: the Film Sales Co., New York.) Produced by Houston King, Alex Lipschultz. Co-producers, Scott Colquitt, Morgan Coy, Andrew Finnigan, Brooke Finnigan, Carlyn Hudson. Directed, written, edited by Andrew Bujalski.

Crew: Camera (B&W/color, video), Matthias Grunsky; production designer, Michael Bricker; supervising art director, Madison Fisk; art director, Caroline Karlen; costume designer, Colin Wilkes; sound, Eric Masunaga; associate producers, David McClafferty, Drew Xanthopoulos. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Next), Jan. 21, 2013. (Also in Berlin Film Festival -- Forum.) Running time: 91 MIN.

Cast: With: Patrick Riester, Wiley Wiggins, Myles Paige, Robin Schwartz, Gerald Peary, Gordon Kindlmann.

More Scene

  • US record producer The-Dream arrives for

    Top Music Publishers Come Together for Songs of Hope Honors

    The 15th annual Songs of Hope honors united songwriters, music industry insiders and more than a few preeminent doctors at producer Alex Da Kid’s Sherman Oaks compound on Thursday night. Jimmy Jam returned to host the event, which served as a fundraiser for the ever-vital City of Hope medical treatment center as well as a [...]

  • Renee Zellweger Rufus Wainwright Sam Smith

    Renée Zellweger: Judy Garland Was 'My Childhood Hero'

    Awards buzz is building around Renée Zellweger for her performance as Judy Garland, emerging as a frontrunner in the Oscar race for best actress. But for her, the real prize was paying tribute to Garland, of whom she’s been a lifelong fan. “Nobody was prettier, nobody sang prettier…the adventures she had, [she was] my childhood [...]

  • Keke Palmer BlogHer19 Summit

    Keke Palmer Brought to Tears Accepting Truth Teller Award at #BlogHer19 Creators Summit

    Keke Palmer stood surprised and wide-mouthed on the #BlogHer19 Creators Summit stage as she was presented with the Truth Teller Award for her recent acting work — and her viral “sorry to this man” clip. “This means so much,” the multi-hyphenated star softly whispered as she got teary-eyed upon accepting the award. Last week, the [...]

  • LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 19:

    Emmys 2019: Inside All the Hottest Pre-Parties

    It’s (Emmys) party time! Before the 71st annual Emmys go live on Sunday, stars and execs are keeping busy by party-hopping in the days leading up to the big show. Here, Variety gives you the inside details on who was where and what they were doing. Keep checking back right here throughout the weekend for [...]

  • Jennifer Lopez Green Dress

    Jennifer Lopez Closes Out Versace Show in Famous Green Grammys Dress

    Jennifer Lopez has found her way back into the Versace dress that broke the internet in 2000. The “Hustlers” star closed out Versace’s Spring 2020 show in a re-worked version of the revealing, bright green silk chiffon dress that she wore to the Grammy Awards 20 years ago. The dress quickly became a pop-culture phenomenon, [...]

  • 10 Storytellers to Watch

    Variety Celebrates Inaugural 10 Storytellers to Watch Event

    Storytellers from across the spectrum of entertainment — film, literature, podcasting and play writing — were honored Thursday at Variety’s inaugural 10 Storytellers to Watch luncheon at Gramercy Park Hotel, hosted with partner the Independent Filmmaker Project and presented by Audible. Honorees Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, author of “Friday Black”; “Limetown” podcasters Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie; [...]

  • Demi Moore Corporate Animals

    Demi Moore Teases Upcoming Memoir 'Inside Out,' Talks 'Corporate Animals' Team Bonding

    As Demi Moore gears up for the Sept. 24 release of her autobiography “Inside Out,” the actress says she feels like a weight has been lifted. “Even the stuff that I may have been nervous about is completely lifting…because it’s a process,” Moore told Variety at the premiere of her upcoming film “Corporate Animals” at [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content