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Computer Chess | Review

Bujalski adds Technology to the Perils of Human Connection

Andrew Bujalski Computer Chess PosterIn an Andrew Bujalski film, there is nothing harder than making yourself understood. Funny Haha is now considered a watershed moment, a film that spawned a legion of imitators. In it, Bujalski perfectly captured the muddled speech patterns and the even more confused motivations that characterize post-collegiate angst. Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax furthered this aesthetic, exploring the nuanced, minute ways people hurt each other, always at cross purposes, often not on purpose. With his newest Computer Chess, Bujalski explores a whole new terrain, and a new way of seeing but still with the same themes and preoccupations; it is not enough that human communication is trying, now technology must be a struggle as well.

A weekend conference at a third-rank motel is the battleground where teams from across the US come to pit their computers against each other in a chess tournament. Early on, the question is asked whether a computer will ever be able to beat a human at chess (the film is set in 1982). Some sneer, others already proclaim the end is nigh. Throughout, the blessing and threat of technology’s onward march is at the forefront. Defending champions from Cal Tech, Bishton (Patrick Reister) and Beuscher (Wiley Wiggins) have high hopes but soon find themselves perplexed as their computer Tsar 3.0 seems to be acting against its own best interest and deliberately throwing matches. The younger and more sensitive Bishton in particular takes this to heart, staying up nights trying to understand it, treating it like a spurned lover.

The hotel is brimming in part due to a second conference that is happening simultaneously, an ideal counterpoint to the computer chess competition, a New Age retreat advocating a fresh outlook and good vibes. Whenever the two groups intersect, the uptight technicians are unable to compute the laidback attitude the New Age group exhibits. In one extended scene, Bishton is lured back to the room of Dave (Chris Doubek) and Pauline (Cyndi Williams), a happy-go-lucky middle-aged couple. Dave sits in a tiny bathrobe while Pauline coyly asks the uptight Bishton about his sexual past. Bishton should bolt out of the room but when offered a place on the bed beside them, he quietly complies, perhaps out of fear, perhaps curiosity. The tone is equally tense and hilarious and when he finally does retreat, one can’t help but wonder what it would look like should he have stayed.

Bishton’s computer Tsar 3.0 provides just as much conflict. After running a series of experiments with the lone female competitor Shelly Flintic (Robin Schwartz), Bishton realizes certain things about the system that both terrify and excite him. He is so preoccupied with these discoveries that he fails to notice and is unable to engage with the real, living, breathing girl sitting next to him in her pajamas in the middle of the night. Bishton’s fear of intense emotion and recoiling from Shelly highlights the latent epidemic that befalls all the computer buffs: the avoidance of human connection due to fear of rejection and the consequent obsession with the (seemingly) reliable friend, the computer. A computer never says no.

Computer Chess is shot on a VHS camera from the period the film takes place in. The image is purposefully dated yet totally immediate, the texture feels nostalgic but in the recent past, unlike the forgotten one of Super 8. The same could be said about these men and their machines. Their glasses and moustaches portray a different time but their obsession with technology and avoidance of each other could be set last year, or any time in the last fifteen years, really. The technicians don’t know how to talk to each other; no one is able to display any emotion other than professional respect. The closest thing to love is the affection they show their gadgets. A harbinger of things to come.

Reviewed on March 11th at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival – Festival Favorites Section
92 Min

Jesse Klein (MFA in Film and Video Production from The University of Texas at Austin) is a Montreal-born filmmaker and writer. His first feature film, Shadowboxing, (RVCQ '10, Lone Star Film Festival '10) . As well as contributing to IONCINEMA, he is the senior contributor to This Recording and writes for ION Magazine and Hammer to Nail. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Almodóvar (All About My Mother), Coen Bros. (Fargo), Dardenne Bros. (Rosetta), Haneke (The White Ribbon), Hsiao-Hsien (Flowers of Shanghai), Kar-wai (In The Mood For Love), Kiarostami (Close-Up), Lynch (Blue Velvet), Tarantino (Jackie Brown), Van Sant (To Die For), von Trier (Breaking The Waves)

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