So far, the only time I had a chance to watch Computer Chess – Andrew Bujalski’s latest film, was at the New Horizons International Film Festival in Wrocław. This festival is a magical, magnetic event that attracts people from all over the country and Europe once a year in July. Young and old cinema lovers gather in Wrocław to celebrate what’s new and inventive, astonishing and difficult in film, music and arts. It is film though that is most praised, discussed, and anticipated – and then respectively loathed or adored, dismissed or accepted.
Computer Chess was one of those highly anticipated works I chose to watch – and with this one I decided not to read any reviews in advance – I was willing to immerse myself in this cinematic novelty without any prejudices or expectations.
The result was quite astounding. Computer Chess caught me off guard completely. I got myself into believing that I was watching a real period piece of 1980s, a hilarious record of one computer geeks’ competition somewhere in the USA. It did not matter that the director himself was too young to be able to make this movie in the early 1980s. The specific, analog look of the film, with grey and a little grainy picture gave an impression of a real period piece; the actors were actually really good amateurs who seemed to be filmed ‘live’ – this impression was even more intensified by the period haircuts, clothes, interior decorations, equipment and the enormous, heavy computers.
What is more the challenging use of the original Sony analog tube cameras not only brought some sense of reality to the story – it also allowed the director and the cinematographer Matthias Grunsky to create a specific, studio-like atmosphere. A specific climate that we know from the old television programmes of 1970s. This atmosphere, achieved by handling old cameras and the whole set of original accessories, intensified the relations between the characters and made it even more believable. Such attention to detail brought the viewer thirty years back in the most entertaining and convincing manner.
As Matthias Grunsky argues in his blog: ‘All these artifacts combined add a transcendental character to the image and help express the sometimes unexplainable things that happen between man and computer in our story.’
And this is I think a key to understand the idea behind this film. It is a lightheartedly presented story of a specific group of people and their different concepts, visions and philosophies revolving around technological advancements.
Lost in the story I joyously followed the eccentric characters preoccupied with computer programming; characters who are brilliant with coding and decoding, who engage themselves with a great focus into developing computer language, discovering its abilities and predicting how powerful the machines would become one day – a day when they start to think and reason like humans. The contest is a place where those who invented the computer which can play chess best, win and thus make another leap forward in a barely crawling digital world of programming.
Computer nerds, although technologically smart, they seem also a bit shut down and withdrawn from a real world of human interactions. They exist as if on a different planet away from our daily routines and earthly matters.
Involved into computer related activities, the characters exchange ideas, investigate new, possible solutions for their computers, compete, win and fail – but in the midst of all that they express most awkward abilities to communicate their deeper feelings, or their real self – which is not all so bad – the characters seem happy and safe within their geeky, computer oriented worlds full of intellectual challenges and purpose oriented mathematical reasoning.
The computer contest takes place in a remote hotel where another group of purpose oriented people has their meeting, too. They are some New Age enthusiasts who enjoy rediscovering their humanity by immersing their hands in bread or performing their birth as a group exercise – led by a ceremony master they accompany the computer nerds and together they express two very funny, exaggerated, and somehow extreme approaches to life. They all seem to have difficulties in understanding their own humanity – so they search, either through a weird group of quasi spiritual New Age practitioners, or through the never-ending quest for perfection in the technological inventions that aspire to be a reflection of a human mind.
To sum things up – Computer Chess is an amusing, original and engaging picture. It is also a characteristic piece of work that no one but Andrew Bujalski would have made – an author of a very personal, unique vision and talent to create convincing, a little alienated characters who on many levels represent our lost in technological evolution human race.
Computer Chess movie – official website
Matthias Grunsky’s blog
No Film School article on Matthias Grunsky’s work on Computer Chess (2013)