(Computer Chess is now available on DVD and at Amazon Instant through Kino Lorber. It opened theatrically at the Film Forum on July 17, 2013. It world premiered in the NEXT Section of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize. Its next stop was the Berlin International Film Festival. Visit the film’s totally awesome official website to learn more. NOTE: This review was first published on January 28, 2013.)
In 1984 Barry Salt, a rather obscure British film theorist, published a book called Film Style And Technology. In the book, Salt did statistical analysis of key films from each major period of film style history. His basic thesis is that film technology shapes style and aesthetics. The most obvious example is how film grammar changed once sound was introduced. The camera became less mobile due to the early microphones and mixers being bulky, which also prevented location shoots. Stories also became dialogue driven and acting became more voice dependent. So each period has a distinctive feel stylistically due to the particular technological advances of that time. Thus, if you want to make a true period film, one that really feels it is of the past, you would have to draw inspiration from more than just the props, haircuts and wardrobe of that period. Recently, watching a film print of Three Days of the Condor, I realized it felt so uniquely ‘seventies’ because the lenses, film stock, ratio of wide shots to tight, and general editing pace were all unusual compared to modern films. It succeeded as a total immersion into the distant past in a way that modern period films rarely do.
Andrew Bujaski’s Computer Chess was my favorite of the 28 films I saw at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. It is a complete and utter cinematic experience, in large part due to it being shot on the Sony AVC 3260, a ‘70s-era tethered video tube camera. The camera first hit the market in the late ‘60s and was designed as a lightweight portable camera for both professionals and amateurs. Its shallow focus, low contrast black-and-white image looks at first like modern security camera footage, but the Sony has a zoom lens that allows for a wide variety of framings, which provides a varied depth of field from shot to shot and this is in part what defines its most unique trait. Computer Chess features both tightly composed shots of heads bent over computer screens in a crowded room and long empty shots of a man dancing down a long hotel hallway. The camera itself is tethered to a recording box and then the film’s tech team was also simultaneously digitizing the image. This made the camera extremely bulky and immobile. Consequently, inside crowded rooms, the camera does not glide or dance with the actors like it does in modern films. The shots are often static and frames are often angled in such a way that it feels as if we don’t have unlimited access to these strange characters and their often obtuse arguments. The quality of the image could be called crude by comparison to today’s high resolution, high contrast, hypersensitive focus control cameras, but nevertheless, its unique vibe is both disorientating and transporting.
Bujalski’s film tells the story of a group of cutting edge computer geeks who gather in a Texas hotel for a computer chess tournament in the early 1980s. The team whose computer wins will face off in the final match for the ultimate man vs computer challenge, reminiscent of the actual Garry Kasparov chess challenges. There are an assortment of computer types with weird haircuts and unhip period clothes verbally sparring with each other about tech problems as well as larger esoteric questions regarding their own individual computers idiosyncrasies. Also in the hotel for the weekend is a marriage encounter couples therapy group who sit in a circle attempting to better understand their partners’ and their own frustrations.
The couples’ open eagerness to engage each other verbally about feelings is in stark contrast to the computer dweebs, who seem to each be stuck in some state of pre-adolescent, pre-verbal bubble. The contrast between these two groups is often mined for hilarious laughs, such as when one of the couples tries to seduce the youngest member of the computer tribe by getting him to ‘open up’ about his feelings and urges while rubbing his neck.
The dislocation caused by the physical aspects of the production, the weird haircuts, lingo, clothes and the black-and-white imagery transport you to a world that for sure existed but has never really been explored on the big screen with such texture. Unlike other films of this period, Computer Chess doesn’t attempt to evoke warm fuzzy nostalgic feelings of a bygone era; instead, it uses the dislocation generated by the video image to cause us to be hyper-aware of how different the world was in the past from how it is now. Bujalski depicts an innocent computer age when the excitement of technology was driven by a pure pursuit of exploration, rather than the pursuit of application value. At one point a programmer says the future of computers is in dating and we are reminded that there was a time when computer science had yet to be fully co-opted by the corporate consumer driven mentality that currently fuels the dreams of young tech geniuses.
The theme of Man versus Computer is in itself a quaint concept because it was driven by a now dated fear of technology. There were initially fears that computers could be used to create mass destruction or that man’s basic humanity would be somehow compromised by a HAL type computer logic. The film has a sad eve of destruction vibe to it; at times, it reminded me of another Texas indie film, Eagle Pennell’s Last Night At The Alamo, which was also about a group of people getting together for one last night before their world was changed (in this case, the closing of an old tavern). Likewise, Computer Chess depicts life on the cusp before the computers won. Today there are barely any skeptical voices who speak out against the evils of technology. Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not A Gadget as well as Jürgen Habermas’s screeds against the internet are the lone articulations of this position. Computer Chess, though, is a comedy and it can be simply enjoyed as a nostalgic romp. But if you start to really explore your own insecurities about some of the conflicts that arise throughout the film’s weekend, you may be surprised how deep its tech themes really run. It’s an extremely entertaining low-tech cinematic breakdown of our modern high-tech world.
— Mike S. Ryan