by Matt Levine
I’d like to propose an unusual triple feature: 2001: A Space Odyssey, AI: Artificial Intelligence, and Computer Chess. The third might seem to operate at an entirely different level than 2001 and A.I., both of which benefited from near-unlimited economic and technological resources and the guidance of two of American cinema’s most revered directors. Computer Chess, on the other hand, was shot using the Sony AVC-3260—a low-grade, black-and-white digital camcorder originally released to the public in the late 1960’s—and helmed by Andrew Bujalski, the young and talented filmmaker best known for epitomizing “mumblecore” in recent American cinema. Yet if the Kubrick/Spielberg movies clearly dwarf Computer Chess in scope and public anticipation, Bujalski’s marvel is just as ambitious in grappling with what defines human creativity, intelligence, and emotion, and arguably just as successful in conveying its unique vision of how artificial intelligence deviates from the human minds that created it.
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Director: Andrew Bujalski
Producers: Houston King, Alex Lipschultz
Writer: Andrew Bujalski
Cinematographer: Matthias Grunsky
Editor: Andrew Bujalski
Cast: Kriss Schludermann, Tom Fletcher, Wiley Wiggins, Patrick Riester, Kevin Bewersdorf, Jim Lewis, Freddy Martinez, Cole Noppenberg, Myles Paige, Gerald Peary, James Curry, Bob Sabiston, S. Kirk Walsh, Daniel Metz, Stephen Wheeler, Mark Blumberg, Eric Newton, Robin Schwartz, Kevin Welch
Premiere: January 21, 2013 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: July 17, 2013
US DVD Release: November 5, 2013
US Distributor: Kino Lorber
This may sound like a bold statement for a movie that seems—at least from the trailers, promotional materials, and advance buzz that preceded it—like a gimmicky celebration of retro nerddom. There is, first and foremost, the visual style: shimmering with a black-and-white plasticity, as though it were shot in a computer-generated snowglobe, Computer Chess really does look and feel like a discarded documentary you might have stumbled across on late-night public access in 1980. There’s also the cast and mise-en-scène, populated by shy introverts bedecked in pocket protectors and oversized eyeglasses, as well as prehistoric computers and dot-matrix printers accurate to the film’s early-‘80s setting. I was dreading the kind of film Roger Ebert described in his March 2013 review (one of his last): “Here's a movie by nerds, for nerds, and about nerds.”
But I’d respectfully disagree with Ebert here: thankfully, Computer Chess achieves a great deal of charm, originality, and beauty in its lovingly recreated setting, not to mention an explosion of mind-bending ideas delivered subtly and amiably. The film takes place at a nondescript hotel in Austin, Texas, hosting a computer-chess convention in 1980; as representatives from IBM and MIT unveil their newest chess-playing computer programs (outfitted with advanced intelligence in order to read and respond to extremely complex moves as a talented human opponent might), they are joined by upstart independent programmers and “experts” who are dubious that pre-programmed intelligence could ever compete with the human mind.
Though Computer Chess is initially poised as a faux-documentary about this competition, what follows is more complex and indescribable than you might imagine. Early on, we bear witness to a lengthy conversation about where artificial intelligence (and, implicitly, a revolutionized network of mass communication) is leading us. Military capabilities are deemed to be computer programming’s ultimate endpoint (which makes sense, given that the Internet began life as a military experiment connecting labs throughout the country). One character suggests that the ability to wage war by logically interpreting and responding to opponents’ actions (as though it were a chessboard) will turn war into a computerized enterprise, with consideration of human sacrifice now completely, sinisterly out of the equation. Later on, though, another character opines that online dating is the utmost purpose that artificial intelligence can serve for humans, by analyzing personality traits and romantic preferences and logically deducing one’s “ideal” companion. The fact that love and war are alternately seen as computers’ greatest capabilities suggests not only that artificial intelligence is designed in order to assist (or maybe supplant) human thought and emotion at its most intense; it also suggests that humans increasingly behave according to “artificial” intelligence, reading statistics and responding to patterns yet dismissing such organic factors as spontaneity, gut feelings, caprices, compassion, morality, and so on.
Computer Chess, though, comes down on the side of humanity, optimistically having faith that human creativity, intimacy, and irrationality triumphs over cold, computerized logic. As the film increasingly focuses on the small personal dramas between the programmers—small, yet viewed sympathetically, as love goes unrequited and business partnerships collapse, resisting logical patterns of behavior—it becomes clear that Computer Chess’ sympathies lie with the human mind and its unique behavior, not with its computerized counterpoint. Instead of humans increasingly behaving like computers, technological hardware takes on the mysterious unpredictability of humans. A significant POV shot—with a fish-eyed lens that nearly mirrors HAL9000 reading human lips in 2001: A Space Odyssey—envisions a sentient computer observing two humans converse in front of it, somehow ingesting their emotional frankness into its hardware (and proceeding to behave erratically for the rest of the movie). The world becomes strange, unknowable; as a programmer sublimely named Mike Papageorge wanders the hotel hallways, unable to book a room, he’s besieged by an army of impossibly shaggy cats, eventually stumbling into a New Age self-help group for married couples that initiates him through a bizarre birthing ritual. Irrationality trumps logic.
This erraticism even extends to the visual style of Computer Chess, as it seems even the ‘60s-era digital camera falls prey to some kind of virulent irrationality. The image is occasionally warped by static, or polarized; for one scene, with seemingly no instigation, the black-and-white late-‘60s digital video (surprisingly beautiful in its archaic texture) jumps to color 16mm film. In some movies, such capricious quirks would seem forced or hollow, but these bizarre visual interruptions perfectly exhibit one of the movie’s main ideas: that a sort of unpredictable spontaneity is more dynamic, more human, than an existence ordained by inviolable patterns.
If Computer Chess tries to convey a plethora of ideas about the nature of intelligence and creativity, it does so lightly, in a charmingly confident manner, allowing bizarre interjections and cerebral dialogues to play out with grace and humor. Bujalski’s own intelligence as writer/director is subdued and affable, overflowing with heady ideas yet allowing them to emerge organically, encouraging viewers to do some of the thinking ourselves (appropriately, for a movie about human intelligence). It doesn’t seem hyperbolic to call Computer Chess one of the funniest and brainiest movies of the year—a deft touch that extends to the characterizations, which provide genuine personalities to an ensemble that easily could have been a rehash of the bumbling nerd stereotype. It’s an incredibly impressive feat by Bujalski, shaping something so lithe and fascinating with such a light touch; I’ve always thought the director transcended his mumblecore labeling (especially with Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation), yet Computer Chess is his finest movie by far, exhibiting contagious warmth and ingenuity.
Among all of the momentous films questioning the interplay of human and artificial intelligence—not only 2001 and A.I., but Blade Runner, The Matrix, eXistenZ, Pulse, etc.--Computer Chess may not be the most magisterial or astounding. Its charms are subtler, though no less gratifying. It is, however, the most jovial and optimistic of the bunch, greeting the explosion of the new Digital Age with faith that we’ll be able to embrace our humanity.