‘80s sci-fi returns in Computer Chess

Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess brings ’80s computer nerds into arthouse cinema.

Computer Chess

Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess is set on the cusp of 1984, in a Middle-American hotel where two conferences are taking place. In one, a group of programming nerds gather for a chess tournament between various computer programs. In the other, an African guru (Tishuan Scott) leads a collection of middle-aged couples in a session that seems to be equal parts boilerplate self-help, New Age ritual and swingers’ retreat.

Peter (Patrick Riester) is a young programmer working under mentor Tom Schoesser (Gordon Kindlmann), who is at first absent from the tournament, leaving his charges to fend for themselves. Over the course of the weekend, he has awkward interactions with the tournament’s sole female participant, Shelly (Robin Schwartz), gets even more awkwardly propositioned by two of the swingers (Chris Doubek and Cyndi Williams) and starts to discover strange and startling things about the computer program he’s working with.

Shot on a primitive video camera of the era, with a cast taken from the filmmaking community of Austin, Texas, including a lot of first-time performers (the closest thing to a star is Dazed and Confused’s Wiley Wiggins in a small role), the film consists largely of arcane dialogue between nerds. On the surface, it can come across as a painfully awkward arthouse experiment, but below this surface, there’s a lot going on. Bujalski seems to be playing on one of the most popular subgenres of ’80s film — the sci-fi comedy in which computers come to life (Weird Science, Short Circuit, etc) — but he filters it through his own sensibility. (Critic Chuck Bowen proclaimed on Twitter that Computer Chess “suggests Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise as directed by Jarmusch,” which is pretty spot-on and has to be one of the great blurbs of all time).

The film is full of magic realism and absurdist sight gags, but all refined with Bujalski’s ultra-dry sense of humour. There’s also a fair amount of Godardian self-reflexivity: master computer scientist Schoesser is played by actual computer scientist Kindlmann; the master of ceremonies is played by a film critic, Gerald Peary, and the whole tournament is being shot by a videographer (Kevin Bewersdorf), his images blending in seamlessly with the film’s narrative.

Though the film’s computers are hilariously primitive by today’s standards, the story’s setting, on the eve of the personal computing revolution, allows Bujalski to reflect not only on how much computers would come to shape our lives, but the personalities of the people who spearheaded this change. With a deceptively simple cinematic style and a narrative that’s both loose and deliberate, Bujalksi pushes boundaries in the tradition of the great arthouse filmmakers.

Computer Chess opens this Friday, Aug. 30 at Cinema du Parc


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