The electric Kool-Aid Turing test: Computer Chess ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 27, 2013)

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One of my guilty pleasures from the 1980s is an endearingly dated romantic comedy, Electric Dreams. It’s an age-old story…you know, the one where the nerdy protagonist buys himself one of those newfangled home computers and promptly shorts it out by spilling a drink on the keyboard, which unexpectedly transmogrifies the unit into an ersatz HAL-9000, which then becomes his rival for the affections of the cute upstairs neighbor babe (oh, how many times have we heard that one?). If you’re like me (isn’t everyone?), and would like to believe “that totally could happen” you have the perfect mindset for Andrew Bujalski’s off-kilter 80s retro-style mockumentary, Computer Chess.

Conjuring verisimilitude via a vintage B&W video camera (which makes it seem as if you’re watching events unfold on a slightly fuzzy closed-circuit TV), Bujalski “documents” a weekend-long tournament where nerdy computer chess programmers from all over North America assemble once a year to match algorithmic prowess.

Not unlike a Christopher Guest satire, Bujalski mixes up a bevy of idiosyncratic characters, like the boorish independent programmer Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige), who wanders the hotel halls at night like a Flying Dutchman, knocking on random doors to see if anyone would let him crash on their floor. He seems particularly fixated on getting into the room occupied by shy Shelly (Robin Schwartz), the only female programmer (about whom the conference chairman gushes to the crowd: “M.I.T. has a lady on their team this year!”). Shelly wisely spurns his creepy advances, preferring to hang with kindred spirit Peter (Patrick Reister), who works for a rival team headed by the enigmatic Professor Schoesser (Gordon Kindlmann).

It’s a particularly busy weekend at the hotel; they are also hosting a couples retreat, led by “a real African” therapist, who puts his clients through some classic New Age exercises (further accentuating the vibe of 80s nostalgia). In one of the film’s most amusing scenes, the ever-wandering Papageorge gets roped into a “rebirthing” session (“He’s crowning! He’s crowning!” ecstatic group members joyously exclaim as they “deliver” the spiritually reconstituted Papageorge, who later gloats to himself about getting his “catharsis for free”).

Another highlight borne of this oil and water mix: The painfully shy (and, we assume, virginal) Peter nearly gets sweet-talked into a ménage a trois with one of the couples after the wife gently admonishes him to metaphorically break free of the chessboard’s 64 squares and open himself to Life’s infinite possibilities.

However, just when you think you’ve got the film sussed as a gentle satirical jab at computer geek culture, things really start to get weird. And then they get even weirder. In fact, the final third (and Bujalski’s overall deadpan sensibility) stirred up memories of Slava Tsukerman’s 1982 cult curio, Liquid Sky.

While this marks the director’s fourth effort, it’s only the second Bujalski film I have seen other than his 2002 debut, Funny Ha Ha, a hit and miss affair which holds the dubious distinction as the prototype for the “mumblecore” genre (I remember when it was called “actors with bad elocution”). So based on the two I have seen, this is my favorite. I could watch it again; there’s a lot more going on than first meets the eye (pay close attention to the Blade Runner-inspired final shot!). There’s nothing else quite like it in theaters right now.

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