Unique. That’s the word I’d use to describe Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess, an utterly ambitious film about a competition featuring duelling men (and a woman) and their computers as they square off in a round robin of chess.
Bujalski is ambitious in the way that he’s trying to make an entertaining movie about nerdy technicians and their comprehension of chess and their machines. But also, because he’s shot his film using Sony AVC 3260 cameras. For those who need that translated, these are black-and-white tube cameras that were released in the late 60’s.
Computer Chess adapts a boxy standard definition presentation, but it’s this visual aesthetic that adds a layer of nostalgia to Bujalski’s work. Light glares bleed across the screen occasionally when the exposure is caught off guard and camera pans are executed in an unsteady manner – on purpose, mind you. The team excellently manning this equipment along with the technology itself and the commendable talent in front of the camera truly makes the viewer feel as if we’re watching an old telecast providing coverage on a slow news day. However, this is great fun to watch.
There is, however, a slight issue with how the scenes have been edited together. Bujalski and his editor take full advantage of shabby split screen effects and ridiculous video filters. These moments add to the mid-80’s period the film is set in, but when Computer Chess wants to go for more trippy tones, these tricks become overkill. It’s only then when the filmmaker stops using these effects to emphasize the period and starts using them to show movie goers how terribly goofy they are.
Bujalski’s artifact has a very dry sense of humour that never gets tiring. It’s the first time I can recollect where an American indie makes terrific use of a funny bone that rarely flies outside the UK. The deadpan readings and the contained excitement from the featured technicians will have you laughing out loud. My favourite moment was when the thrilled competition director Bill Henderson (played by real life film studies professor/film critic Gerald Peary) highlights the most “exhilarating” aspect of the competition – a final head-to-head match between himself and the winning computer.
It never feels as if Bujalski (who also wrote the screenplay) is making fun of his subjects to wring out laughs. It’s the utmost honesty from these dedicated workers along with their awkward sociable exchanges that provide the firepower behind the film. This is the magic that’s usually found in Christopher Guest comedies and it’s incredibly tough to emulate. Bujalski does it without breaking a sweat.
But then, the film gets worried. Almost as if it’s terrified of being seen as nothing more than a gimmicky experiment. Suddenly, Bujalski isn’t interested in staying true to the mockumentary roots he’s built so well. The writer/director then decides to pile on scenes of uninteresting psychobabble and weighty rambles hoping to add depth to his movie. Instead, it sucks all the fun out of Computer Chess.
When these spiritless scenes are intercut with bizarre sequences concerning other residents at the shady hotel the competitors are staying at, that jarring curiosity movie goers had invested in is converted into something rather off-putting. Bujalski, sadly, is now dealing with a film that is just as indecisive and lost as it was hilarious and sharp.
The droopy, misguided second half of Computer Chess makes me think Bujalski’s idea could’ve worked better as a short film. It definitely had enough gas to get it to the 40 minute checkpoint. But as it stands, Computer Chess is something that can still be appreciated past its major floundering flaws.