Runs Fri., July 26–Thurs., Aug. 1 at Varsity. Not rated. 92 minutes.
Andrew Bujalski filmed Computer Chess on the same antiquated video gear that news crews used in 1980, when his film is set. The retro technology is crucial to this charming, subtle, and unexpectedly entertaining feature. Shot with modern cameras, a story about programmers wheeling their bulky computers into a hotel conference room for a computer-chess tournament would seem like hindsight, tending toward irony or parody. Rendered in black-and-white analog video, acted with true conviction, Computer Chess is so deeply immersed in its milieu that it feels like a documentary. And like a great doc, it is at times tense and uncomfortable to watch.
The stakes are high for the programmers. The winner of the competition receives $7,500—20 grand in today’s money!—and a match against Pat Henderson (Gerald Peary), a braggart chess master who hosts the annual tournament. But much more’s at stake. As the programmers talk about their work, the possibility of artificial intelligence and the very meaning of life are discussed—as are the implications of their work for the military-industrial complex. Not that it’s all serious. Bujalski’s programmers are nerds, after all, and their idiosyncrasies are delightful.
As the chess weekend wears on, a winner is crowned, but that seems beside the point. Things get weird, and the film takes a Lynchian turn that might test your patience. Even so, it still feels too real to ignore.