Defiantly weird indie "comedy" that's set mostly in a nondescript hotel in 1980, where various teams from tech universities around the country have brought their clunky computers and chess-playing software to face off in a heated tournament, all for a modest cash prize and quiet nerd glory.
After seeing writer-director Bujalski's unremarkable but sweet slacker comedy Mutual Appreciation, I was expecting further development from the man considered one of the central figures in the so-called "mumblecore" collection of humanistic, ultra-low-budget independent films.
Bujalski's work has developed, all right, but not towards anything resembling a mainstream narrative.
I will give him credit for really going out on a stylistic limb here. Computer Chess is shot with 1980-era black and white video cameras, making the film look as though we're watching an old security tape. Bujalski makes free use of his cameras' analog gadgetry, occasionally employing their rudimentary filters and chunky on-screen text. But the actual plot begins in verité coherence and eventually veers off into the Twilight Zone.
What's it all supposed to mean? Well, in an interview, Bujalski has stated that Computer Chess is, like all his work, about our inability to understand each other. I get the metaphor: these ubergeeks are relying on their computers to replicate human behavior, even when they themselves are so socially inept that they wouldn't recognize natural human behavior if it stared them in the face. And as the chess programs misbehave erratically in front of their flummoxed programmers, so too does the logic of the film lapse again and again. It's as if Bujalski purposefully filled his movie with bugs.
So yes, there are plenty of interesting ideas at play in Computer Chess. And its attention to period detail is flawless, right down to the characters' awful haircuts. But with all of its bizarre, go-nowhere scenes, the film itself did little more than try my patience. It's simply too odd for me to hate, and obviously Bujalski made exactly what he wanted to make, but watching this film was exactly like sitting through my professors' pretentious old 1970s experimental videos back at CalArts.