Computer Chess

Ashley Clark

36-year-old Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, Beeswax) is best known to cinephiles as one of the key proponents of the so-called ‘Mumblecore’ movement, a strand of American indie cinema which blossomed in the early noughties and made a virtue of amateur acting, minimal production values and its characters’ terminal solipsism. But times are changing; the movement seems to have sputtered out, while one of its leading lights, Greta Gerwig, has made her defining leap into the mainstream popular consciousness starring in Noah Baumbach’s delightful Frances Ha. In a just and fair world, the superb Computer Chess—while low-key, laidback and determinedly eccentric—would see Bujalski follow-suit in the household name stakes.

Taking place in 1980, the setting for Computer Chess is a nondescript hotel upon which a group of nerdy computer programmers (think Beauty and the Geek levels of social awkwardness) descend to take part in a conference. Shooting in monochrome video from the early '80s, Bujalski achieves the same aesthetic timewarp quality of Pablo Larraín's No, fully immersing us in the era. The early stages unfold in documentary style, and are packed with keenly observed moments of character-based humour. Many of the biggest laughs are provided by Myles Paige’s obnoxious ‘rock star’ programmer Michael Papageorge (a name which will surely be gracing future T-Shirts in the same way as Napoleon Dynamite’s Pedro).

But the ghosts in the film’s machine begin to flicker with greater regularity (often hinted at by ingenious aesthetic glitches), and what has begun as a dorky, off-kilter chucklefest morphs almost imperceptibly into a genuinely profound, and surprisingly moving, philosophical musing on the relationship between man and machine. Capping it all off is a final shot which rivals those of the Coens’ Barton Fink or A Serious Man for haunting ambiguity.

The film’s contemporary relevance—as we descend ever further into a remote world of RTs, ‘likes’ and ‘unfollows’—cannot be disputed: Bujalski wants to take us back to a protean era to observe the roots of our present forms of communication, and the spiritual and psychological effects of such developments upon their creators. Genuinely fresh and thought-provoking, Computer Chess is that rare beast: a true original. You’ll want to see it again and again to parse its myriad mysteries.

Follow Ashley on Twitter: @_Ash_Clark

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