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After 13. edition

Computer ChessComputer Chess
Festival Spotlight
21 July 2013
Festival Spotlight - Checking Out

Despite the cerebral trappings of its story, Computer Chess is resolutely low-fi. It is also one of the more idiosyncratic American indie films of the last few years.

Andrew Bujalski’s quasi-mockumentary unfolds over one weekend in the early 1980s, at a nondescript hotel in the American hinterland. A group of programmers, enthusiasts and borderline OCD misfits have gathered to pit their computer chess programmes against each other. The atmosphere is initially relaxed, but as tensions rise and glitches materialise, professionalism gives way to paranoia and petty rivalry. Matters are not helped by the presence of a new age couples group who appear to hold sway in the same conference room outside normal working hours. In one hilarious sequence a programmer unable to find accommodation, who is forced to sleep in the room, is co-opted by the group in a re-birthing ritual.

Bujalski shot Computer Chess with video cameras from the period, giving the monochrome imagery a flat, unadorned look. In any other circumstance it would work against the appeal of a film, but its aids Bujalski immeasurably in recalling the era. The feel is enhanced by witty dialogue that underpins both the naiveté and prejudices of that time. At one point the tournament’s smug host, played by film critic Gerald Peary, congratulates the group on their acceptance of a female entrant, condescendingly referring to her as “a lady who’s competing way back in the room there”. Likewise, Bujalski has fun with computer jargon dialogue, fast cutting scenes to play up the comic potential of the techno-babble.

For fans of Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, Bujalski’s first two features, which had him labelled the godfather of Mumblecore, the group of American filmmakers associated with low-budget dramas often dealing with relationships in urban environments, Computer Chess is a radical departure. However, all those associated with the movement have now branched out from their earlier work. Jay and Mark Duplass, Lynn Shelton and Joe Swanberg have moved on to more commercial projects featuring well-known actors, while the movement’s poster girl, Greta Gerwig, following appearances in films by Whit Stillman and Woody Allen, is poised for stardom with Frances Ha.

Unlike his peers, Bujalski has resisted the move towards the mainstream. Computer Chess is a work of a maverick playing very much by his own rules.

Ian Haydn Smith

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