Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
Computer Chess: Analog Dreams of a Digital Future
1980, all music was analog. So was just
about everything else. Computers were generally
recognized as the coming thing, but they were still too large, bulky, and slow
to be a part of most people’s daily lives.
However, these zero-point-zero generation computers could be programmed
to play chess. A motley assortment of
early computer pioneers will pit their chess programs against each other in
Andrew Bujalski’s retro Computer Chess (trailer here), which opens this
Wednesday at Film Forum.
a tacky suburban chain motel, some of computer science’s shabbily dressed elite
have come together for a computer chess tournament. The winner will face off against the arrogant
human host, Pat Henderson, who has never lost a match to a machine—at least not
yet. He and his opening night panel
predict that will end by 1984, a year rife with significance. The defending champs from Cal Tech are still
the presumed favorites, but their TSAR program is acting decidedly buggy. It is so bad, the project director, geek
superstar Dr. Tom Schoesser, hastens his arrival for an emergency diagnostic session.
seem to be going well for the MIT contingent, with Shelly Flintic receiving an
inordinate amount of attention as the first woman team-member in the competition. In contrast, nobody wants to deal with the prickly,
borderline homeless Michael Pappageorge, even if he is a mad genius.
fully embraces the technology of the era, shooting Chess in black-and-white, on now archaic late 1970’s video
cameras. The film is even rougher and
grainier than viewers will expect, yet Bujalski’s nostalgic vision will win
them over. Indeed, it is clear
throughout the inspired first four-fifths of Chess that the game of chess is really just a stand-in for
innumerable AI applications to come. We
can also recognize Pappageorge as the sort of social drop-out who either became
the Bill Gateses of the world, or more likely remained marginal figures,
haunting tech clearance auctions, buying bizarre obsolete hardware to continue
building their mad visions.
Paige arguably deserves award consideration as Pappageorge, finding pathos in
his obnoxious behavior. Texas-based film
editor Robin Schwartz is also gives Chess
some soul as Flintic, one of the few competitors with any facility to make
human connections. University of Chicago
professor Gordon Kindlmann’s Schoesser has a knack for making his theory-heavy
dialogue sound smart and accessible, while in his on-screen debut, film critic
Gerald Peary chews the scenery nicely as the pompous Henderson.
one of the godfathers of Mumblecore, Bujalski now demonstrates how handy it is
to have some plot and an underlying concept supporting a film. Still, he overplays his hand in some
respects. Initially, the hippie-dippy
encounter group sharing the motel is a rather brilliant piece of era-appropriate
cultural satire that could have been lifted from 1980’s uber-zeitgeisty Serial.
However, whenever Bujalski contrives ways for the two groups to
intersect, the forced comedy falls flat.
Likewise, the genre payoffs he offers late in the third act are head-scratchers
that make little sense in the film’s overall context.
works best when suggesting TSAR might just be the not so distant ancestor
of WarGames’ Joshua and 2001’s HAL 9000. Nonetheless,
Bujalski presents a consistently compelling time-capsule that captures the
innocent fascination and single-minded commitment to innovation that drove the
digital revolution. A sly period
production with a keen understanding of early computing, Computer Chess is recommended for Wired readers when it opens this Wednesday (7/17) at New York’s
Labels: 1980's, Andrew Bujalski