Computer Chess (2013)

Directed by Andrew Bujalski

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Analyzing Computer Chess seems a daunting thing to do.  Half the people who find a way to see it will love it, and half will hate it.  I fall into the former camp, but even then it’s hard to figure out why it works when it does and when it doesn’t work, if ever.

This is a strange, experimental little film that I found incredibly funny in the same way a Todd Solondz movie is.  It’s often uncomfortable, the world is certainly bleak, and it doesn’t much care what you think.  At least, that’s the impression I got.

The film begins as an apparent documentary, effectively mimicking the style of a low-budget fly on the wall doc from the early 80s.  We follow a computer chess tournament in a familiarly bland hotel, with an ensemble cast of characters.  They are all so awkward in their own right, and the story takes a while to reveal itself so you think this must be real.

But then the movie gets going, tracking a few different characters around the hotel premises as they battle each other, their computers, paranoia about the government, a spiritual cult-ish group and older sexual predators.  Also cats.

The less you know about this the better, but I guess I’m here to spoil it.  The biggest thrill of the film was the way it began to break down the constructions you thought it had set up in the beginning.  It might take a few minutes before you realize the camera has a mind of its own (initially it is the point of view of a character within the story) and begins filming things other people can’t see.

Then the characters go down rabbit holes that have nothing to do with anything else.  One character, Papageorge (Myles Paige) spends most of his time looking for a room to crash in.  Another is momentarily seduced by a member of a spiritual group also meeting at the hotel.  This only comes after he has a late night meeting with a girl from another team (the only girl in attendance), teasing the beginning of a meet cute which the boy is oblivious to.

One of the few actors in the film is Wiley Wiggins, most famous for his role as Mitch in Dazed & Confused.  He plays a stuffy-looking man, very contrary to his long-haired look once upon a time, who has a particularly delightful and strange encounter with a computer that begins asking him questions about life and the soul.

The computer first asks him to name the ‘highest value.’  He thinks, then types “infinity.”  The computer responds with a series of question marks, and then one of the film’s biggest laughs follows when he then types in love, replaces it with life, then replaces it with love again.

I’m not sure why I found it so engaging and hilarious.  It might just be that character’s apparent willingness to go anywhere, to follow any command.  It mimics the willingness of the other boy who listens to the spiritual older couple that very clearly tries to initiate a threesome with him.

These characters are nerdy to say the least.  They participate in a computer chess tournament in which they let their computer analyze each move and then do what it tells them.  They are babysitting the mechanical players of the game, and oftentimes they and observers will openly question the motivations for one of the computers, sure it’s making the wrong move.

The same boy who is nearly seduced will come to the conclusion that his computer only wants to play against another human, not another computer.  Like with the Wiggins character, he shows himself to be open to the idea that these computers have their own will of some sort.

The computer is some kind of magical mystery box that holds clues to answers these characters are only starting to ask.  It’s a source of great power, and still all they do with the computer is play games of chess.

I really can’t say enough how funny I thought this movie was.  It’s unpredictable, awkward and endearing.  At times it gets very experimental, notably in the style of editing and sound design, and my only complaint would be that these techniques got in the way of the story underneath.  There is a lot to like here, but Andrew Bujalski’s film feels like it’s made for one person (and it is), himself.  Certain decisions feel deliberately off-putting, but most of them only make the strange comedy more alluring.

Up Next: Hereditary (2018), The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005), The Chocolate War (1988)

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