A dizzying plunge into ecstatic communion in the guise of a period nerdfest, shot in black and white with a Sony AVC3260 and, for one nerve-rattling stretch, in warm color with a Bolex, Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess takes place over one weekend in the early Eighties in a drab hotel. The film was shot near Austin, Texas, but it has a distinctly Mass Turnpike/MIT vibe.
We begin in an “activity room” where an annual computer chess tournament is underway. There is immediate comedy in the brutal haircuts and polyester tops, the balance between ceremony and loose convocation, the unwieldy equipment (participants sit across tables next to their enormous computers, which dictate moves that they enact on plastic boards, said moves shown on a big screen via opaque projectors). And then there’s grand master Pat Henderson, perfectly embodied by Gerry Peary, who I have the pleasure of announcing as the winner of this year’s Best Performance by a Film Critic Award. Henderson’s initial appearance sets the tone for what is to come.
We’re looking at clouds and sunlight. “Hey! You’re shooting at the sun!” screams Henderson. “You’ll burn out the tube!!” This prompts a jerk of the camera and a cut to the man himself admonishing the off-screen operator. “Don’t ever shoot at the sun!” Visually, Computer Chess is designed to evoke mid-Sixties TV shows like Albany’s TV Tournament Time: infinite shades of softly delineated gray, split screens (employed to increasingly disorienting effect), explanatory text at the top of the screen, a 4:3 frame, strobing. Yet this is not a piece of nostalgia. Those idle shots of clouds and sun and Henderson’s authoritarian clampdown establish a pattern for the entire film, in which everyone keeps checking themselves, rationalizing their desire for fellowship or sexual congress and channeling it through one activity or prescribed course of conduct or another, be it a computer chess tournament, the ethos of swinging, or—hilariously—an encounter group in which the participants reenact their own births.
Bujalski is one sharp filmmaker, cultivating the appearance of random behavior while adhering to structures that appear to grow organically from the shooting. In the tournament scenes, he conveys something rare: the collective surge of fellow feeling among a roomful of individuals too embarrassed to articulate their joy in sharing the company of others with the same consuming interests (like computer chess; on a deeper level, artificial intelligence; deeper still, the possibility of identifying the source of life itself). Everyone either creates or participates in elaborate rituals in order to simply be in one another’s orbit. Yet they habitually check themselves, ensuring that the formalities are observed and the structures remain airtight. “Don’t shoot into the sun!”
Computer Chess has been mistaken for one kind of movie—a narrative about an introverted young man named Peter Bishton (Patrick Reister) enjoying an awkward coming-of-age experience—when it is, finally, a series of touchingly rhapsodic variations on communion and aloneness, desire and repression, control and chaos. The cast is a joy, from Austin animation guru Bob Sabiston to an unrecognizable Wiley Wiggins (from Dazed and Confused and Waking Life), from Bujalski regular Myles Paige as arrogant “rebel programmer” Mike Papageorge to novelist Jim Lewis, from Chris Doubek and Cyndi Williams as middle-aged swingers to real-life computer geniuses Gordon Kindlmann and James Curry. We’ve never seen such people in movies before—assistant branch manager types, entrepreneurs-in-the-making in corduroy suits, a young woman (Robin Schwartz’s Shelly) who is the very definition of mousy but who is one click or caress away from turning herself inside out with abandon. But then on every imaginable level, Computer Chess is one of the most original and satisfying movies I’ve seen in ages.