Computer Chess is the latest film from Mumblecore director Andrew Bujalski, a semi-mockumentary (more about that later) about 80s computer programmers striving to create the ultimate chess program, shot on 80s era video equipment. Despite its narrative and formal hook however, the film comes across more as a ninety minute novelty than a satire on the same level as those made by Christopher Guest. Essentially, Computer Chess has enough RAM to be a short film (or maybe a web series) but the hard drive crashes somewhere around the one hour mark.
The film centers around an annual convention of programmers from such prestigious schools as MIT and Cal Tech. The teams lug their massive towers (some on wheels, requiring multiple technicians to guide them around the corridors) and bulbous monitors from their hotel rooms to the convention floor to engage in computerized chess matches. The first half of the film bases its satire in the period: the clothes and facial hair make us chuckle, just as the large computer apparatuses do. The convention’s organizer repeatedly points out how proud he is that this conference marks the first appearance of a female programmer. The theorists theorize where the technology is headed and our historical and technological distance turns these conjectures into another joke. Why is one of the programs repeatedly drawn into a game of chess in which it tries to commit ludic suicide? Is it capable, Blade Runner style, of sensing the difference between a hardware and human playmate?
Bujalski programs these scenarios and jokes and, like the computer program at its narrative center, ultimately gives us data that means little. After an hour, the film becomes almost Dadaist in its construction, veering away from the mockumentary aspect to digression. In one extended narrative thread, one of the struggling programmers comes across a self-help conference in the same hotel in which participants act out being born and later finds himself invited to partake in a threesome with people old enough to be his parents. The programmer’s social awkwardness makes the climax of the scene – which the viewer sees coming almost instantly – a source of uncomfortable laughter. But why is it there at all? We’ve already come to realize these programmers can relate more to their gadgets than other people.
Moreover, it isn’t just the narrative of Computer Chess that comes across as being shaggy but the style itself. The first scenes establish that the unique look of the film is formally motivated by the presence of a technologically prehistoric videographer. At this stage, the film is a mockumentary. Subjects are interviewed on camera and participants acknowledge the camera. However, as the film progresses, the line between diegetic and non-diegetic video blurs. The camera follows the programmers into their rooms, through their encounters with the local prostitute, suggesting that the videographer has disappeared but the form of soft, blurry, black and white video remains the same. Furthermore, the camera and editing begin to take on the form of character psychology, leaving the mockumentary formally lost between the objective and the subjective.
At the end of the film, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to get out of Computer Chess. While I can say I admired it for trying, it doesn’t seem to try very hard. As a satire, the film seems satisfied with exploring the surface of an issue (because almost all documentaries and mockumentaries are about an issue). Admittedly, I laughed a bit (although less than I thought I would) but I’m struggling to think about how much credit Computer Chess should get for running the same code on the original floppy disk of Revenge of the Nerds (1984).