Monday, July 29, 2013

Film Review: “Computer Chess” — An Engaging Dream

The eccentric and charming Computer Chess focuses on a group of geeks concentrating on what they see as the infinite microcosm to be found on the sixty four squares of the chess board.

Computer Chess, directed by Andrew Bujalski. At the Kendall Square Cinema and other screens around New England.

Computer Chess is rather a dear movie even if, as some allege, it is a departure from the genre of mumblecore filmmaking Andrew Bujalski is credited with/accused of creating.

But what is, or what was, mumblecore, before this breach? I base my comments on Funny Ha Ha (2002). There’s a lot of muttering in Funny Ha Ha, which is fine, given that the characters don’t have much to say to each other except variations on, Oh I’m sorry; I am so silly; and Excuse me. To say that these twenty-somethings are awkward, unformed and mostly get in each other’s way is understatement. It’s more like they are undead — but avant the current craze and in a nicer way. Or maybe they are unalive — skinny, underemployed and anhedonic. But when they do spring to life, as Marnie, the main character, played by Kate Dollenmayer, does at the very end of Funny Ha Ha, it is electric. Bujalski had the gutsy idea of ending the film right there, leaving everything that was conflicted and unresolved just as it was. The key question has been answered: yes, she has a pulse, she laughs, she lives, she has a future, and is lovely.

To say Computer Chess is a radical break from that aesthetic is an exaggeration; it does not leave muttering and mumbling behind, nor does it forsake indistinctness. Much has been made of the antique video camera — a Sony AVC-3260 —that Bujalski uses in the movie. Its grayscale contributes to the blurriness and graininess, and gives the movie a dream-like quality. If you’ve ever seen Edison’s earliest motion pictures, shot on paper tape, you’ll know what I mean. Computer Chess does not go nearly so far but it is on that visual spectrum. Edison of course, at that stage, had no choice; movies weren’t much more than a dream. Bujalski does have a choice, and makes good on it.

Compared to Funny Ha Ha, the plot of Computer Chess is nearly baroque in its complexity. The setting is a hotel hosting a computer chess convention. This is back in the early eighties when Deep Blue was hardly a gleam in IBM’s eye, and Garry Kasparov was years away from being the world champion who would lose to it. Contestants in the computer chess contest lug or wheel in heavy bits of hardware: for those who fetishize such things, a PDP 11 seems to be the class hunk of hardware.

At a panel discussion in advance of the contest someone asks: Do you think a person will ever beat a human being?

That’s not mumbled; it’s completely audible but receives a fleeting response. There are many such opportunities for muffled — mufflecore? — guffaws — sorry, but guffawcore? — in a film full of gentle humor. The hotel also hosts an encounter group for couples. It’s nothing less than winge-making to see people, under the guidance of an African guru — one cynic opines, nah, he’s just this black guy from Detroit — solemnly voice vowels and consonants, as if getting ready for their first words; tickle each other’s bellies with bread pellets, and then become reborn.

So we have a group of geeks focused on what they see as the infinite microcosm to be found on the sixty four squares of the chess board, and another group aiming for no squares at all and no board. This contrast is just a bit too symbolically rife; Bujalski, at any rate, can’t resist toying with, tweaking and kneading it to the point where the film is somewhat awash in meaning. (The motif of subcultures competing for leg room seems to be in the air: an episode of Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black features an Alcoholic Anonymous group and a yoga class angling for the same prison space).

Besides the huggers and programmers, the hotel boasts a subculture of cats. One character in the film backs out of an assignation with a roving sex worker because of an allergy attack. Naturally one of the geeks — one of the less animate ones — runs into some serious problems with his sanity. And one of the computer chess programs is beset with a software error that makes it seek out and then hurtle toward every opportunity to be checkmated. (Such a bug actually afflicted a prototype of the machine that defeated Kasparov. As Feng-Hsiung Hsu, a programmer on the IBM team, recalled: “Instead of avoiding being checkmated, Deep Thought was enjoying being checkmated!”)

There are a few more motifs swimming around in the Chess Movie mix. It might seem there are too many but you could say the same of many dreams. Computer Chess attached itself and hitched a ride on the mind of this viewer, at any rate, much as a dream does.


In a discussion held after the showing of his film at the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge, MA, director Bujalski said that he hardly knew anything about chess, and was undoubtedly the worst chess player ever discussed by NY Times columnist Dylan Loeb McClain. McClain analyzed a position that came up in the computer chess contest.

He wrote that the white king should have retreated (Kd2). The point, as I understand it, is for white to commit both his king and his rook to blocking then capturing the black pawn on b3. Black has doubled pawns on the b file. White, with a strong pawn structure, and a rook to black’s bishop, should be able to queen his a3 pawn and win. That, at any rate, is how I read it. Am I correct?

In any event, white, in the grip of suicidal mania, let black queen and so succeeded in losing the game.

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