Computer Chess (2013)

“No, it’s actually very complex once you start to think about it as a programming problem. Just the number of possible games explodes exponentially with each move, it’s close to 10 to the 120th power. And to try and compute all those games might take even longer than humanity would be around to do so.”

‘Computer Chess’, directed by Andrew Bujalski in 2013, is a low-budget American comedy set during a competition in 1980 amongst computer programmers. The core of this film and the reason it feel so distinctive is its use of analogue video cameras and its feeling of being a documentary, but a documentary that twists and subverts itself. Many of the actors are amateur, some actual computer scientists, and the characters that result from these performances are often grotesque. It’s hard not to see this film through the lens of countless films from the 1980s about geeks and nerds, and more recently films that nostalgically chart the rise of Silicon Valley, but ‘Computer Chess’ takes a more ironic and subversive angle to this period. The computer convention takes place in a hotel at the same time as a ‘human potential movement’ which leads not only to painful encounters between the socially awkward scientists and the socially overly-friendly hippies, but also sets up a juxtaposition between the computers and the humans. This tension is brought to a climax in the final, and weirdest, scene in which the film strays into fantasy suggesting that the membrane between people and technology (a key division during the computer chess competition) is a porous one. It’s a funny, stylish and unusual film, the unique look of the movie is a key part of the narrative and Bujalski allows this aesthetic to permeate every aspect of his film from the credits to the editing.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s difficult to suggest a double-bill for such an unusual movie, but maybe watching this in the context of the 1980s obsession with the rise of computers would be interesting. So maybe ‘War Games’?

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