Computer Chess (2013) ****
Dir. Andrew Bujalski
Starring: Gerald Peary, Patrick Riester, Gordon Kindlmann, Wiley Wiggins, Myles Page, Jim Lewis, Freddie Martinez, James Curry, Robin Schwartz, Chris Doubek, Cyndi Williams, Tishuan Scott
Review By Greg Klymkiw
"Cos you're the joke of the neighbourhood,As written and directed by Andrew Bujalski, Computer Chess is a great, visionary new picture reflecting a strangely familiar world so close we can almost touch it, yet finally feeling so long ago and far away that we have to pinch ourselves on a regular basis to prove any of it might have happened at all. Our breath is constantly snatched from within us as we bear witness to its subjects as they veer wildly between the extremes of both the mundane and the spiritual. Everything in between those two points is never what you expect it to be and the picture chooses directions that are near impossible to predict. The movie is laugh-out-loud hilarious, always compelling and might be the most aggressive expression of stylistically bold choices taken by any American film in recent memory.
why should you care if you're feeling good,
Take the long way home,
take the long way home..."
-Richard Davies, Roger Hodgson (1979)
It's also really creepy. The creep factor served up by Bujalski's one-of-a-kind experience creeps in (as it were), ever-so surreptitiously from a number of odd vantage points.
Weekend conferences, for example, are plenty creepy. A group of like-minded individuals descend from far-flung locales upon the neutral territory of a cut-rate hotel to share ideas, convey new inroads, engage in discourse or activities with a competitive edge and ultimately, to experience fellowship of an almost unrivalled intensity because the commingling is tightly scheduled and packed into a time frame of two or three days. The official portions of the conference take place under the flickering, pulsating glare of fluorescent lights in nondescript meeting rooms, the walls decorated with pale colours and the floors lined with wall-to-wall carpets notable only for the industrial strength fibres they've been hewn from.
This is where Bujalski's finely etched characters find themselves.
The evenings are spent in casual discourse - usually in one of the conference participant's hotel room and accompanied by copious amounts of booze, drugs and bowls of salted, mixed nuts. Sex is on the mind of some, but the potential of getting any is remote, save perhaps from hookers and/or from such unlikely sources that the mere thought of engaging in any coital gymnastics would be enough to inspire dry heaves.
One of the greatest scenes I've seen in any recent dramatic film is a lively late night discourse during an impromptu get together in a hotel room involving Carbray (James Curry) a young corporate geek feeling forced into justifying his very existence by John, a cynical older "casual" observer (brilliantly, hilariously and malevolently played by Jim Lewis) who baits him with an aggressive line of questioning. The verbal jousting is ultimately rooted in the subject of Chess and how it's being used in both computer science research and the experimental demonstrations on display.
And damned if the game of Chess - at least to me - isn't as creepy an activity as attending weekend conferences. It's a game that can only be played between two people with little to no real interaction save for that which is devoted to the quiet, heightened concentration required to move game pieces upon a board of light and dark squares. Often thought of as a thinking man's recreational activity, it involves such a single minded degree of strategizing on the part of the opponents that there can be no genuine communication, no interruption and certainly no idle chatter. Every ounce of brain matter must be used to move the pieces about in hopes of capturing the pieces of one's rival player - pieces representing Kings, Queens, Bishops, Rooks and Pawns.
The aforementioned cynic suggests that Chess is a game of war - so much so that the very use of the game at this conference might well be of interest to dark agencies like either the CIA, FBI or the Pentagon. John, the testy, curmudgeonly cynic might well be the creepiest character in the entire film. In fact, he may or may not be an operative with one of the shady agencies he brings up. He is one thing for sure - a drug dealer.
The Geek defender Carbray doesn't buy into the belief that he could possibly be engaged in activities that are exploitable as strategies of Totalitarian aggression. That said, he semi-concedes that even if his research leads to others using it to choose a darker and perhaps more militaristic path than he ever intended, his work is far too important to worry about the potentially ill-use of his efforts. Besides, Carbray reasons, if he wasn't doing the work, it might mean the Russians are doing it and might "get there" first. The cynic retorts that this is a poor argument - and one that "justifies any atrocity" - suggesting that Nazi scientists might also have used such arguments in the development of wholesale extermination techniques of "undesirables" during the Holocaust.
It is here where both men are handily shot down by an uncharacteristically and surprising interjection from someone far more stoned than anyone in the room. Freddie (Freddie Martinez), a dusky, long-haired, handsome young stoner, who appears to be the cynic's friend and partner, offers a sage retort to the entire argument. "Chess is black and white," he says emphatically. "It's not war. Chess is not war...War is Death! Hell is Pain! Chess is Victory! I'd rather play Chess than go get killed in war, get a bullet in the eye. I enjoy it. I enjoy playing it."
The cynic hands his handsome, dusky, thoughtful, philosophical and stoned young friend a joint. Time to move on. The conversation morphs into a discourse on artificial intelligence. The cynic pops some pills and heads to bed with the words, "I'm gonna let you guys figure this one out."
This particular centrepiece in the film reminded me of why I found and continue to find the game of Chess rather creepy. I remember an odd fellow from a similar time frame in the 80s. He was probably in his mid-40s at that point and my pals and I knew him to see him. We never spoke to the guy, nor he to us. We referred to him as Shakespeare since he vaguely resembled the stereotypical images of The Bard which adorned the myriad of publications in University book stores as well as various posters dotting the city for Shakespeare in the Park and the like.
By night, Shakespeare worked as a busboy in a little deli-cafe that we - for all intents and purposes - lived in. By day, he hung around the same deli-cafe, silently playing chess with an equally silent opponent. Once the game ended, his silent opponent would silently depart and Shakespeare would sit alone - in silence - reading science fiction novels until his evening bus-boy shift was to begin. Soon after the dinner rush ended, a new opponent entered. He'd sit there the whole evening - silently playing chess with Shakespeare - who'd silently make his moves on the chess board between table-bussing activities.
At one point, not even being aware of how much time my slacker friends and I were planted idly in this same deli-cafe, I detailed the aforementioned routine to one of my more, shall we say, cynical pals. His response was a straight-faced: "It's a quality life!" I guffawed uproariously. When my laughs subsided, I caught my breath and realized that my mirth had mutated into a thorough chilling to the bone.
I began to repeatedly experience this feeling all over again as I watched Computer Chess, this strange, murky and dazzlingly original film. Bujalski allows us to be flies on the wall while several teams of scientists, researchers and academics - computer AND chess geeks all - engage in a collegial cage match to determine which one of them has designed the ultimate computer chess-playing program. The stakes are high. Fuelling the various geeks is a generous cash prize along with a sense of manly (and academic) pride that might eventually translate into added funding for future research and development.
At the same time, my personal queasiness with respect to weekend conferences, chess and the aforementioned tale of Shakespeare the Busboy correspond directly to the deft intelligence of Bujalski's film and most of all, its true power. Much of our experience on this planet is akin to looking in a mirror. Sometimes, we like what we see, but more often than not - no matter what our ultimate worth is in terms of contributions to the world and those around us - we don't care to recognize ourselves in images that bear a clear resemblance on many levels, but at the same time make us wish they were different. The movie is like looking into a mirror - we laugh heartily, not at the characters, but with them. It's the recognition factor that cements Bujalski's film on a fairly lofty pedestal of excellence and potentially, some kind of greatness.
There are surface and stylistic details that add to the recognition factor. First of all, the film is shot in black and white analogue video on an actual camera from the dawn of home movie video in the early 1980s, the time frame in which the film is set. Everything is framed in the standard aspect ratio of 4:3 (or in theatrical terms 1:1:33) which is, essentially a box-like frame. Not that I have a problem with this ratio at all.
In theatrical terms I actually miss the qualities of composition that many filmmakers - William Wyler, George Stevens, John Ford and even Stanley Kubrick, for example, were able to achieve with standard frame. Rather than widescreen rectangular vistas of 1:1:85 or 1:1:35 (the current TV equivalent being 16:9), we'd get a much greater sense - particularly in interiors of things like the height of staircases in relation to the rest of a room (Wyler), the variety of images that could blend into each other in dissolves (Stevens), the painterly quality of human figures against the limitless heavenly skies (Ford) and the sheer height of ceilings in vast spaces (Kubrick).
Bujalski's shots - mostly interiors - are magnificently composed in this aspect ratio. The sheer softness of the image within the box-like frame is like some terrible beauty unfolding before us. At first, we think we're in a documentary, but for many film geeks, the first appearance of the legendary author, film critic, film professor and documentary filmmaker Gerald Peary in the role of a bookish, though delightfully sexy and curmudgeonly appealing academic conference moderator, is both a pleasant surprise, but also a tip-off that we're in mockumentary territory. For those who don't recognize Peary, another tip-off occurs that takes us into territory of another kind altogether. Once Bujalski turns the camera operator into an onscreen character with his camera in hand, the point of view continues in the same vein as before. Someone is not only observing the action, but creepily photographing it, and it's almost always not our onscreen character, the camera guy.
This is not a documentary, nor is it a mockumentary. We're in the territory of a dramatic film and while I hesitate to suggest we're in the horrific "meta" territory, Bujalski boldly tosses some added visual frissons that remind us that we are indeed watching a movie, but does so in ways that are integral to both narrative and thematic aspects of the film. When a truth is being exposed, Bujalski shifts to a negative reversal image, when a conversation framed in a simple medium two shot shifts into seemingly dangerous territory, he slams us into a split screen and among other brave, bold choices, he even allows one scene wherein the black and white drain from the image into full, garish 80s video colour.
The camera or, rather, point of view, becomes as relevant a character as those appearing onscreen. Given the science fiction elements of the story in terms of exploring the potentialities of artificial intelligence, Bujalski manages to inject a state of paranoia into the proceedings. WE are not the camera. That would have been the easy way to proceed and frankly wouldn't have delivered a movie as richly layered as this one. At certain points it becomes very clear that the point of view is being manipulated by someone. Who or what this operator represents instils even more paranoia.
Paranoia, of course, makes perfect sense within the context of the world Bujalski presents. First of all, we're in the 1980s - the North American reality of Reaganonimcs, Rompin' Ronnie's nutty "Star Wars" explorations into new forms of defence and warfare, a resurgence in survivalism, even chillier Cold War relations between East and West and the weight of the previous decades of the strife tearing the world apart (Vietnam, the riots, the assassinations of beloved politicians and public figures, etc.).
In terms of American cinema in relation to the period Bujalski has set his film in, one is reminded of two important works by Philip Kaufman: his end of decade 1978 remake of Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers which replaced 50s hysteria with late 70s paranoia and his monumental 1983 epic of the American space program The Right Stuff which placed emphasis on individuality within the context of larger, perhaps even more insidious New World Order desires. Among a handful of others, Kaufman's two films present as fine a portrait of those times actually made in those times. One can believe that Computer Chess is as much product of the 80s as Kaufman's work was.
The sense of scientific exploration within the digital world of computers is very much tied in with this period of history. The big box-like computers were, at this point in time, early forerunners to the nano-technology that allowed them to be easily transportable. In our current day of powerbooks, notebooks, net books and iPads, these agent behemoths looks cumbersome, but at the time they represented the very exciting portability of new computers. And each night, while a clutch of participants find themselves in Bacchanalian revelry (which, for computer and chess geeks amounts to sitting around in hotel rooms), an equal number are exploring their programs to implement the results and discoveries of the day into perfecting their work.
One such young man is Peter (Patrick Riester), a teaching assistant to Dr. Schoesser (Gordon Kindlmann) an esteemed academic and a junior programming partner to Beuscher (Wiley Wiggins) a senior project leader who is, in actuality, a Psychology professor. Their program during the competition is fraught with glitches and seems to almost be giving up. The T.A. is chastised and scrutinized by his highly regarded overseer, yet clearly it's the pupil who's more on the ball than his teacher. Peter is obsessed with finding an answer to the mystery of why the computer is "committing suicide" and Schoesser patronizingly suggests that such an act is impossible in a computer as it's not human and is merely working on the basis of code that's been written.
The divide between "old" and "new" is clear in an earlier scene when Peter is in the professor's hotel room and looks at various articles of domesticity whilst Schoesser's persnickety wife is burping her baby and whispering to her hubby in low tones. Hubby approaches Peter and, obviously on the wife's orders, asks him to please use the bathroom to wash his hands. Later on, as the two men are going over the computer glitches, the professor is agog that Peter is able to withstand all-night hacking sessions. Well of course Peter would be committed to working, if need be, 24/7. Schoesser's priorities are bourgeois to say the least. "Look, I've got to get back to my wife and child," he says - as if Peter (and by extension, the audience) is supposed to applaud the priorities of familial complacency over those of discovery at any and all costs.
With the help of a young female computer geek (Robin Schwartz), the T.A. believes he's made an obvious, but extremely phenomenal discovery - one that ties in with the notion of artificial intelligence. The woman, by the way, is one of the few non-males in the world of the film who isn't a hooker, desk clerk or a horny, dumpy, swinging housewife. Much is made, as per the period, of her being the first woman involved in the conference and computer programming in general. It's a breath of fresh air in a world dominated by pathetic male geeks - who, as it turns out, aren't as pathetic as their stereotype suggests anyway - especially in the case of the younger men.
Peter's discovery, for example, is perfectly in keeping with the youthful ideals of the younger programmers. As such, Schoesser is - to be blunt - an asshole and dumps on the young man for basing his theory on limited data and not properly applying the scientific principles of experimentation. Schoesser terms Peter's theory as "outlandish". Peter, on the other hand prefers using the word "unconventional" to describe it which frankly seems far more appropriate.
People like Schoesser in virtually every power position anywhere in the world during most periods of history are little more than unimaginative pencil pushers. Peter tries to explain his enthusiasm by bringing up the brilliant Nikola Tesla (who, by the time frame in which Bujalski's story takes place had fallen very much out of the establishment scientific community's favour). "I do not think that Tesla is a good role model for your academic career," Schoesser snipes before lowering his voice with straight-faced portent: "That is the path to madness."
One wants to punch this loser in the face at this point of the story. Tesla, of course, almost never slept more than a couple of hours each night - pulling like Peter, endless over-nighters. Schoesser, like most glorified bureaucrats is not the kind of guy who's ever going to invent or discover anything truly great without stealing it from someone more talented than he. He has his priorities - a good night's sleep, a big breakfast and his stupid family.
Later in the film, Beuscher, the senior project leader even confirms to Peter something the good Professor has only the vaguest notion of and it indeed ties in with Peter's theory and worse, Schoesser's working on a nefarious deal to profit from it.
As per usual, nests are feathered by the real losers. In this case, the prospects of the research falling into the wrong hands are absolutely chilling - and yet another reason why Computer Chess springs well beyond its "meta" dabbling and satirical edge. I reiterate - the picture is downright creepy.
Another odd nest-feathering type amongst the motley assortment of programmers is the very funny Mike Papageorge (Myles Paige), a purported independent who eschews all the corporate-and-academic-institute-styled teamwork. He sees himself as a maverick and far above all the others. He's a pushy chauvinist pig who keeps trying to hit on the lone female at the conference - harassing her with no class or subtlety. And of course, he holds himself so far above his colleagues at the conference that he's forgotten to do the most basic thing one needs to do when attending such events. He's not booked a room for himself at the hotel and spends the whole weekend in search of places to crash - stairwells, lobby couches, hallways, other peoples' rooms and finally, under a table in the meeting room where he encounters the other group of geeks in the hotel.
Yes, there are two conferences going on at once. The other involves a group of individuals led by a charismatic Rasputin-like figure (Tishuan Scott). What he's up to with his charges is perhaps best left for an audience to slowly discover and get to know on their own, save for the following details - the other conference begins with everyone feeling up loaves of bread like doughy vulvas. There will, however, potentially be some offerings of solace, salvation and sex from the members of this swingin' cult concurrently doin' their 'thang in the hotel.
Doin' one's 'thang is ultimately what life's all about, but in the world of Bujalski's brilliantly subversive Computer Chess, the real question is this: Are we prepared for a time when a computer will be able to do its own 'thang?
In life and great art, there are never easy answers.
"Computer Chess" is in theatrical release via FilmsWeLike and currently playing in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. To experience the exquisite beauty of analogue ugliness, one must TRULY see the film on a big screen.