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The Joyful, Befuddling 'Computer Chess' Revisits The Dawn Of The Information Age

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Photo courtesy Computer Chess LLC
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By Carman Tse / Special to LAist

Within the first few minutes of Computer Chess something seems awry. It looks like a documentary (or maybe a faux-documentary?) But then the audience's view begins to cut to different vantage points within a room full of people. If you watch closely enough, you begin to notice that where you had just been watching from mere seconds before, there is no camera. Something strange is afoot.

Computer Chess is the latest film from the so-called "Godfather of Mumblecore" Andrew Bujalski. The setting is a computer chess tournament in the early 80's at an anonymous motel in Nowhere, U.S.A. A team of nerds compete over a span of a few days, pitting their primitive computers against each other in the granddaddy of all board games. It would only be appropriate to shoot a movie about chess in black and white, and Bujalski goes all in on the retro feel of the film by shooting on old tube videocameras from the 70's. (You can read all about the process of shooting with the cameras here.)

What ensues beyond this initial setup almost immediately defies being neatly summarized. Our nominal protagonists, the team from Caltech, begin encountering glitches with their computer that turns every match into a suicide mission. It's almost as if their computer, Tsar, has become tired of playing against other computers all day. A rival programmer, the sardonic Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige), becomes a nomadic traveller of the motel halls when his reservation is lost. On his journey, he encounters mysterious cats (analog LOLcats?) and drug-addled pseuds just there for the show. He eventually meets a fate fitting that of Dorothy, wandering a briefly-colorized purgatory ad infinitum.

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While Computer Chess rides heavily on its quirk and strange sense of humor, it almost feels as if something lies under the surface like a possessed proto-digital demon. Images leave burned-in marks on the tube that almost resemble ghosts, and technical limitations of the cameras create visual "glitches" that surface at random moments. Although these characters are gathered to compete in a chess tournament, it feels as if they are all somehow drawn together in a mutual search for a higher truth that exists in between lines of code. That certainly is the case for a couples' therapy retreat that is also at the motel for the same weekend, led by a so-called African guru.

By looking back to the past to the dawn of the Information Age, Bujalski holds a mirror to our present era of alienation and paranoia. We're bombarded with unlimited data, but we're still lost and wandering. Computer Chess at times may come off as a sloppy, unfocused mess. But if you allow yourself to fall into its joyful form of digital chaos, it becomes a rewarding, multifaceted masterpiece that is certainly unlike any other film you'll see in theaters. Just like one of the computers from the tournament, you'll find yourself watching Computer Chess and getting lost in a loop.

Computer Chess opens at The Nuart Friday. Writer/director Andrew Bujalski will be at the screenings Friday and Saturday at 7:30 and 9:45pm.

Carman Tse is a native of Northern California but not one of Those Guys that hates on Los Angeles (despite his affection for the Giants over the Dodgers). When he's not sharing long-winded thoughts on movies, he's probably sharing long-winded thoughts on baseball or reading about weird sea creatures.