Bujalski - 2013 07 26 - Computer Chess


USA 2013
Directed by Andrew Bujalski
Running time: 92 minutes

“Something about those guys almost seem like monks to me. They were so dedicated to what they were doing, often to the exclusion of the rest of the world. And they built the world we live in now.” -Andrew Bujalski

Forget what you’ve seen on The Big Bang Theory or The IT Crowd – never has a videographed fiction been more thorough, incisive and humane in its exploration of the software geek taxonomy. COMPUTER CHESS’ idiosyncratic characterizations resonated with me (and I’m a software industry veteran) from cycle one. Once one gets past the formidable mustaches, pointy collars and utilitarian haircuts (all of which have become ironically trendy since the 80s), the real biodiversity of geek culture’s speciation begins to yield its treasures. There’s the resigned BigCo insider with enviable access to modern hardware and a bottomless pool of compute cycles. There’s a team whose members resist answering technical questions about their algorithm. There’s the lone-wolf programmer whose idealistic rhetoric earns him no friends amongst those who demand he translate his talk of ‘soul’ and ‘the feminine side of programming’ into concrete terms. There’s the cynical academic who questions the very limits of AI’s possibilities. There’s the pony-tailed stoner who defends the conceptual purity of problem solving in games. There’s a lady programmer. Yes, a lady programmer – a gender inequity which has not been rectified to this day! And this list doesn’t scratch the surface of the mannerisms, stilted locutions and causes célèbres of COMPUTER CHESS’ menagerie of experts.

Bujalski employs a historically accurate video technology (the Sony AVC 3260) to capture the action in handheld documentary style. The late ‘60s camera has a tendency to soften edges and mellow out contrast for a rich spectrum of greys that mirrors the manifold personalities and motivations present at the titular tournament. Scrolling overlays are writ in monospace glyphs whose whitespace inefficiency seems almost luxurious today. Then there are the glitches, which stretch, displace and desynchronize, resulting in uncanny representations that leave one questioning whether the people or the technology is in charge. In one scene, we gaze out at the programmers from behind an iris shot positioned behind the monitor and we identify with the subjectivity of the machine.

The movie’s aspiration is not simply to be funny without descending into mean-spiritedness (a technique familiar to fans of “Special Thanks To” member, Richard Linklater). It grasps at thematic straws that are almost metaphysical in nature. Bujalski depicts every permutation of the {human, computer} tuple encounter. Like a capturing move in chess, they are often exchanges where “two meet and one goes away.”

26 July 2013