Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess—a weird and unexpectedly profound new comedy opening this weekend at the Music Box—is deceptively basic filmmaking, hiding an ingenious narrative structure behind scenes of seemingly inconsequential chatter. The setting is a weekend-long conference held
in the early 1980s at one of the drabbest motels you’ve ever seen in a movie, where several teams of computer programmers take part in a competition pitting their new chess-playing programs against each other. Shot on vintage Sony video cameras, the movie at first resembles an old public television documentary, with Bujalski and his crew having obvious fun feigning technical gracelessness. But as it goes on, the filmmaking grows more sophisticated, with such cinematic devices as tracking shots, split screens, and hallucination sequences entering into the visual syntax.
The formal innovations grow steadily more bizarre (one of the last sequences, shot on 16-millimeter film, approaches pure abstraction); so too does the onscreen behavior. After competition hours, some of the “rebel” programmers hold a drug party and engage in a paranoid rap session about the metaphysics of programming. Rumors begin to circulate that some of the competitors may be working for the Pentagon or the Soviets. And an independent programmer, the wonderfully named Mike Papageorge, can’t find a room and ends up crashing a couples’ therapy seminar that’s also using the motel’s conference hall. Only in its second half and as if by accident does the movie land upon a main character, a naive master’s student named Peter Bishton who comes to suspect the program he’s working on is thinking for itself. Does Computer Chess have a mind of its own too?
A resourceful low-budget filmmaker, Bujalski writes many of his characters for people he knows, regardless of whether they have acting experience. He then instructs them to refashion the dialogue in their own idiom, rather than memorize lines; the results often resemble a direct-cinema documentary from the 1960s. Indeed, Bujalski seems to have based much of his filmmaking style after that of Frederick Wiseman. He filmed all his movies prior to this one (Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation, and Beeswax) on 16-millimeter, continues to shoot mainly on handheld camera, and displays journalistic diligence in capturing the unemphatic, expository manner of speaking that characterizes civic life. (At times Computer Chess suggests an Airplane!-style spoof of Wiseman films, which may give you an idea of how singular it is.)
Several of the computer programmers in Chess are played by actual programmers, and their disarmingly natural performances bring a sense of authenticity to both the technical shop talk and behavioral humor. Bujalski has a gift for depicting struggles of passive-aggressive one-upmanship between socially awkward types—and one of the best jokes of Computer Chess is that in the insular community of first-generation programming geeks such behavior constitutes the norm. Another running gag, which becomes more poignant as the characters unravel, is that these people have an easier time communicating with computer programs than they do with each other. In this context, the couple’s therapy seminar—a hilarious send-up of est and other self-actualization trends from the Me Decade—comes to represent everything the programmers can’t grasp: sensuality, emotional directness, communion with other people.
Near the end of Computer Chess, one of the characters speculates about the evolution of computer dating, predicting that it’s the next major frontier in human interface programming. It’s a surprisingly sobering moment, suggesting that the maladroit behavior we’re observing is in fact a nascent version of today’s social-media culture—in which seemingly any form of human interaction might be mediated by a computer. Like The Social Network, Computer Chess may be read as an origins myth for our digital age. But where David Fincher’s movie implies that social media grew out of a sad and universal need for connection, Bujalski’s ponders whether it might not be the Frankenstein monster of a strange, socially inept subculture. For this reason, Computer Chess may be the more unnerving film.