Movie Review: Computer Chess
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
Now that everyone of means walks around with a pocket computer that can access most human knowledge in a matter of seconds, it might be tough for some to recall a time in which computing was the province of devout programmers, marketers and industry hangers-on.
Witness the early-1980s milieu of “Computer Chess,” an intriguing, often very funny and sometimes pitch-perfect movie from Austin filmmaker Andrew Bujalski (“Funny Ha Ha,” Beeswax”).
Set 30 or so years ago at a computer-chess-program tournament and shot with vintage black-and-white video cameras, “Computer Chess” is an impressionistic, elliptical sketch of guys who are far more at home in front of terminals than interacting with other people.
The small movie simmers with glitchy life, thanks largely to the cast of non-actors who happen to know programming (for maximum dialogue authenticity).
Making the film a faux-documentary style before things get quietly gaga about halfway through (there’s more than a little Stanley Kubrick here) is a canny move, as it lets Bujalski and cinematographer Matthias Grunsky shoot with the ancient Sony AVC3260 video cameras without seeming weird about it. The only thing letting you know that this isn’t actually vintage footage is some decent lighting and the fact that the image hasn’t decayed.
We first meet Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester) and Martin Beuscher (Wiley Wiggins) representing CalTech. Beuscher seems very slightly older and more worldly by default, but maybe that’s just the moustache. Bishton seems younger and almost painfully shy; Riester uses a deadpan so severe it almost creates negative space around his head.
They are more or less our point-of-view figures, but “Computer Chess” is packed with characters both specific to the tournament and familiar to anyone who has ever attended any sort of convention. You will recognize everyone’s haircut from your 1981 yearbooks.
There’s the Guy Who Wants To Be the Center of Attention; here, that’s tourney host Pat Henderson (film critic Gerald Peary), who never misses a moment to remind people he is a chess grandmaster who will be playing whichever program wins the tournament.
There’s The Guy Who Didn’t Get a Room; in this case Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige), a pushy programmer who naturally tries to bunk with The Only Person of A Certain Group, who here is MIT student Shelly (Robin Schwartz), the lone woman at the fest. (Henderson insists on pointing this out: “we have a lady who is competing,” he says, “way in the back corner.” Indeed. Meanwhile, Cal Tech team coach Tom Schoesser (University of Chicago’s computer science professor Gordon Kindlmann) flies in, wife and child in tow, to try to rescue his flailing team.
Elsewhere in the hotel, a couples encounter group is getting very personal with one another; I am not sure I have ever seen bread used that way, but those were different times.
As the tournament progresses, reality starts wiggling out of frame with randomly occurring cats, a character caught in a loop not unlike that of a buggy program and a computer that might or might not be asserting personhood.
Though Bujalski never specifies a location for the tournament’s hotel, “Computer Chess” slots in nicely with Austin filmmaking tradition, however, self-consciously or un-, as it is set about a decade before “Slacker,” where many of these dudes would feel right at home, and five years after “Dazed and Confused,” which seems a cultural world away from these guys. But hey, maybe Mitch Kramer ditched baseball for homebrew computing, cut his hair, and grew a really sweet moustache.