Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Before the computers took over

Yesterday's high tech looks awfully low when seen through a rearview mirror.
In a season full of big-screen bombast and special-effects bloat, it takes more than a bit of counter-programming confidence to release a movie titled Computer Chess. Don't be fooled, though: Director Andrew Bujalski -- a stalwart of the no-budget indie movement known as Mumblecore -- has directed a small comedy about a big subject: the uneasy alliance between humans and digital technology.

Set in the early 1980s, the movie has been photographed mostly in black-and-white using video equipment of the time. In short, no one's going to mistake the images in Computer Chess for 35 mm film.

Audiences should, however, marvel at the performances in Computer Chess. Bujalski's group of no-name actors give spot-on performances as 1980s-style geeks, a catalog of the kinds of people we once thought of as brainy tech types.

The premise: A gathering of A-level computer nerds (the group includes only one woman) assemble for an annual tournament in which programmers pit computer against computer in games of chess. A chess master (played by film critic Gerald Peary) presides over the contest, vowing to take on the winning computer.

Don't get the wrong idea. Bujalski isn't interested in the trumped-up theatrics of a contest. He's interested in reminding us how far technology has come since the Pleistocene days of the 1980s when computers were as big as crates and had yet to become part of everyday life for even the most technologically challenged among us.

Looking at the equipment used in Computer Chess, one can't help but feel a bit of nostalgia for what appear to be outmoded antiques, machines that generate a kind of amused nostalgia for what we once regarded as the cutting edge.

Fair to say that Bujalski has made one of the worst dressed movies of the year -- and that's part of the amusement, as well. The story takes place in a drab hotel that also happens to be playing host to a retreat of people who are engaging in a mixture of anxiety soothing pseudo-therapies and sexual high jinks.

If these are the two poles of human aspiration -- something the movie encourages us to consider -- both come off as stunningly absurd.

Bujalaski allows the humor to arise from situation and character; he doesn't force laughs on us, but seems to understand that a straight-faced presentation of totally plausible people who are deeply immersed in their own worlds constitutes an inevitable pathway to comedy.

I'm not sure that Computer Chess is a movie for all tastes, but that's precisely what it makes it worthwhile. It's a truly idiosyncratic and quietly bizarre piece of work set in the time before we all woke up in a world where too many of us feel naked should we happen to leave home without our cell phones.

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