In 1984, a group of tech nerds, programmers, and chess fanatics gather in a dingy Holiday Inn for an annual chess tournament. Different teams across America have been busy developing chess programs on computers, and the goal is to develop a program that can successfully play a human. The algorithms are complex, and computers, while not in their infancy exactly, are still clunky gigantic machines with little flexibility. How can a software program mimic the human mind and consider the chess board and all of the dizzying possibilities inherent in each move? Is it even possible? These annual tournaments, held over one weekend, are designed to figure that out. The competition is fierce, and the different teams guard their computer equipment and programs from one another in an air of suspicion. There are not too many people in attendance. 30, tops. Over the course of the weekend, the different teams play one another, following the instructions given to them by their respective computer programs. Sometimes the computers begin to behave in bizarre ways. Why is the chess program telling you to put your king out there out front? Isn’t the whole point of chess to protect your King and Queen? One of the programs appears to “commit suicide,” one of the programs puts its team in a never-ending loop, with the Queen and some other piece circling one another, ad nauseum. Stalemate. At night, the teams hole up in their hotel rooms, running the programs, looking for glitches in the coding.
I just described what happens in the movie.
But that’s not what it’s about. I think some viewers found it boring, a bunch of nerds sitting around talking about chess moves and computers. I found it fascinating and compelling, especially because, for the most part, these actors do not feel like actors. They do not seem self-aware, they do not seem like they are “playing” anything (with one or two exceptions), they seem like they are BE-ing. And let me tell you, I can’t get enough of THAT. This is not a documentary, although it is filmed to be like one. There are certain point-of-view shots which are clearly omniscient, and they give the game away, but for the most part the documentary structure is solid.
So that brings us to the look of the film. It was actually shot on an old Sony AVC-3260 camera and in 4:3 aspect ratio, giving the film a boxy and glitchy-smudgy look. You believe you are watching something that was actually made in 1984, It must have been insanely challenging to “go back in time” and film this thing, and edit this thing, with equipment that is so far out-dated that nobody knows how to use it anymore. It reminds me of the experiment done recently at a college campus newspaper, where they decided to put out an edition of the newspaper using no modern equipment. Typewriters and Xacto knives and all that. People pooh-poohed that project, but I can’t help but think that the pooh-pooh-ers were just jealous they hadn’t thought of it first. I know that’s a lame rejoinder, but the pooh-pooh comments reeked of sour grapes to me. “Dumb idea.” “Why would you do this?” “Who cares?” Nobody had any good counter-arguments as to WHY this was a “dumb idea.”
In today’s world, where digital technology is becoming so advanced that you can actually make something digital LOOK like film … there is a lot of work put into making things look genuine. You could have filmed Computer Chess on a digital camera, and then messed with the end result until it LOOKED like it was from 1984, but they went the organic route. It’s a nerd’s paradise, actually. I am thinking of Charlie, the computer hacker in Supernatural, who almost literally drools when she is confronted with a gigantic computer built in the 1950s and has to figure out how to make it do what she wants it to do. Maybe film nerds are the real audience for Computer Chess but I doubt that. I imagine chess nerds as well as tech/programming nerds would love it too.
Computers are developing quicker than anyone can get a handle on. So far, in 1984, no computer program has been able to beat a human being at chess. But the people on the panel in the opening scene know that that day is coming, and probably soon. Nobody can see the future and nobody even has the time to question the ethical considerations of developing a computer that can ape a human being. There are some late-night conversations along those lines, and there’s also a vague sense of paranoia, that what they are developing for chess will end up having military implications, that maybe some of them will be recruited by the Pentagon. (Remember, War Games had come out just the year before in 1983. And Terminator came out in 1984, showing a frightening end-result of “artificial intelligence” technology. Computer Chess takes place fully in that world.) But there are other considerations, other things to talk about. “You know what I think we will use computers for, eventually?” says one tech guy at a late-night pow-wow session. Everyone looks at him, and waits. He takes a swig from his can of beer and says, “Dating. Computers will help us find each other.”
Speaking of which, there is one woman in attendance at the tournament, she’s part of one of the chess teams. And she is treated like a novelty, but without the gender-studiees self-awareness of today’s social media age. The head of the competition says, ” For the first time, this year, we have a lady on one of the teams. And we welcome her.” We see the “lady” smiling shyly, as everyone claps tepidly. Nobody is sitting in that room Tweeting. They are sitting in that room listening, smirking, whispering to themselves, or falling asleep because it’s so boring.
We get to know the different participants. They are pocket-protector nerds, in the dark ages before nerdiness went mainstream, and everyone got put on the spectrum. These people don’t care about the spectrum. They are socially awkward, but there’s nothing particularly bad about that. Social ease is highly over-rated, if you ask me, and can cover up a multitude of sins. So someone’s awkward. So? People are not homogenous, dammit, and there’s something extremely refreshing to watch a film representing a closed world, where there is no self-consciousness about being who you are. You’re there to bring your A-game, your brain, your know-how, your problem-solving abilities. 1984, too, was the year Revenge of the Nerds came out. There’s no defensiveness here, in these nerds, about mainstream culture, and “why don’t the jocks like us” or “why can’t I date a cheerleader?” These people don’t give a shit. They are in full-on immersion in their pursuits.
The only evidence of the outside world at this tournament comes in the form of a weekend “encounter group”, also holding its workshop in the hotel. There are some scheduling mishaps, where the chess nerds walk into the conference hall, only to see a bunch of people sitting on the floor, holding hands, and making animal sounds. “Uhm, we have this room booked,” says the chess guy.
It’s an uneasy meeting of two sub-cultures, the woo-woo self-help Richard Bach culture, where “est” is still working its way through American psycho-babble, and the nose-to-the-grindstone programmers. There’s one scene that doesn’t quite work entirely, where a couple attending the workshop invite one of the chess guys to hang out in their room. They are clearly swingers and are looking to have some fun. It is extremely awkward. There are some problems with that scene (it stands out), but why I really loved it is that it shows the hostility that more “emotional” types can have towards people who actually value their brains, and know things, not just feel them, but know them. The anti-intellectual strain in American culture is strong, and has been there from the get-go, and is basically at Defcon One right now, where experts are distrusted to such a degree that we are actually arguing about evolution again. Fine, “believe” what you want to believe, but I actually enjoy LEARNING new shit, and I VALUE my brain just as much as I value my emotional apparatus.
This couple, looking at the gawky spectacled kid before them, only see “repression” because they are brainwashed to believe that being in touch with your emotions means you feel comfortable rolling around on the floor at a hotel re-enacting your own birth. And if you feel “shy” about these things, then you need to “loosen up.” There’s a moment where the wife, thinking she’s about to make a brilliant analogy, and thinking she’s talking to the kid on his level, says to him, “How many squares are there on a chess board?” The way she says it makes you know that she does not know the answer AND that she thinks it is not answerable. What she is basically trying to say is: “Life is so big and mysterious and there are so many possibilities, I mean, how many squares are there on a chess board, right? We have no way of knowing and that’s the same way with life!” She’s a fucking idiot, in other words (but she reigns supreme in today’s culture. Anyone who values knowledge and learning and book smarts has encountered this woman and encountered her sneers.) So the chess kid answers automatically, thinking it’s actually a real question, “There are 64 squares.” She is annoyed, and yet she also is uncomfortable with being annoyed, because her self-help brainwashing makes her believe that everything has to be great all the time, so she starts a monologue about how repressed he is, and how he is not living up to his potential, because he is limiting himself to intellectual pursuits. By the time this bizarre scene comes, you have been so immersed in the chess tournament and the participants that thinking of this smart kid as “limited” in any way seems completely strange. He is the problem-solver on his team, he is the youngest member of his team, and overrun by the leader of the team, but we can clearly see that this kid is the one really thinking things through. But “thinking things through” is not valued at ALL by these “est-type” groups, where the whole point is to empty your mind and just FEEL.
I know I’m an old fogey and I don’t care. Anyone who thinks it’s a good thing to empty your mind gets an immediate side-eye from me.
So while the scene doesn’t quite work, especially not within the structure of the rest of the film, it had some very interesting intellectual and philosophical points to make. I appreciated its inclusion. I have been treated like that by more emotional types who don’t see reading as “emotional” at all but “intellectual”: they don’t understand the pleasure of intellectual pursuits, the sheer eroticism of obsession, that reading a good novel or a good history book is the epitome of “loosening up”. There is kind of a fascistic homogeneity in that “woo woo emotional” trend that makes me highly suspicious. It seems, frankly, psychotic. So yeah. That scene NAILS that particular dynamic and that culture-clash in a way I have rarely seen in cinema.
The film is quite strange, and gets stranger as it goes along. Cats wander the halls of the hotel. Computer programs rebel. One character doesn’t have a room and wanders the hotel, trying to crash in other people’s rooms, an ongoing pursuit. A woman stands outside the front door of the hotel. Who is she? We find out.
One of the real pleasures of the film is what it looks like, that’s true. And the knowledge that it was filmed and edited on equipment whose heyday was thirty years ago. Andrew Bujalski comes from the mumblecore world, and has directed and written a couple of hits from that film sub-culture. Computer Chess has some of the qualities of a mumblecore film, the non-acting acting, the inclusion of socially awkward moments (flubbed lines, hesitation in walking/speaking, interruptions, a sort of unfussy realistic approach to the image) … but Computer Chess up-ends its own genre, turns it on its ear, and becomes something unique. Its own thing. If the computers here seem to take on a life of their own, then so, too, does Computer Chess. It is greater than the sum of its parts. It has a consciousness and an intelligence that is not in the script, or in the image, but in the whole.
I look forward to whatever Bujalski does next.