The film Computer Chess starts out as a mocumentary and ends up as Primer. It’s equal parts a parody as it is a cerebral slow-burner, a picture that you’re not going to forget anytime soon. Computer Chess is almost a sci-fi labyrinth inhabited by characters from a Robert Altman picture. Criticisms can be made about the structure of Computer Chess, which never sticks to one singular tone (it’s neither a pure comedy or drama), yet there’s no denial it’s an ambitious movie,
The overall setting of Computer Chess is a tournament between multiple technicians around the country who have gathered to a small hotel in the early 80s to compete their computer chess programs against each other. The characters (many of whom director Andrew Bujalski hired because of their knowledge of computer technology) are all high profile experts in their field who meet the ultimate classification of nerds (they wear brimmed glasses and uptight, formal clothing). Various subplots range from the expected (debugging software), the humorous (Michael Papageorge, an engineer played by Myles Paige, tries to find a place to sleep after discovering he doesn’t have a room), to the bizarre (a pack of cats is Computer Chess’ equivalent of the twins in The Shining). The character with the most central role is Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester), a nervous teenager who struggles with his sexual anxiety and reclusiveness.
The documentary aspect is ditched partway through Computer Chess as we realize the director isn’t any bit concerned with his footage (he aims the camera at the son, damaging the filter, and is rarely seen shooting film). It’s at this part where Bujalski makes his film become more earnest about his subject matter. Yes, Computer Chess frequently mocks the seriousness the programmers take about their profession but there’s much respect for their work as well. The eccentricity and playfulness of Computer Chess, alongside the improvisation of the actors, keep the picture in consistent form.
The ending, however, is far more serious and dramatic as it deals with the aftermath of the tournament, revealing that there’s far more to the programming than imaginable. I was confused by the abupt note of Computer Chess concludes with though after some thought appreciated and admired what Bujalski was trying. Computer Chess may be frustrating but I see it as a superb and intellectual comedy.