January 28, 2013

SHOWBUZZDAILY @ SUNDANCE 2013: “Computer Chess”


Andrew Bujalski’s COMPUTER CHESS has a great setting for a comedy.  The time is circa 1980, and the place is an anonymous hotel where a group of nerds–back before nerds were cool–have gathered for their yearly conference and contest among the computer programs they create to enable their machines to play chess with increasing sophistication and strategy; the winning program will face off against a real life human chess master.  Bujalski has reinforced his conceit with a very distinctive filming style, matching the old-time clunky computers the characters have to painstakingly transport and utilize with the use of either actual camcorder videotaping equipment from the era or a perfect replica of same, with a squarish Academy ratio screen size and (mostly) in smeary black and white.  (The impressively conceptual cinematography is by Matthias Grunsky.)  Even the on-screen graphics are exactly in keeping with the overall design.  (Initially, the footage is presented as a documentary of the conference, but that idea is mislaid along the way.)

Unfortunately, there’s not much of a movie behind all this artifice.  Bujalski, although certainly not a household name, has a degree of fame in cineaste circles as one of the founding members of what became known as the “mumblecore” movement a decade ago, with films like Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation to his credit.  Although with Computer Chess he’s embraced a degree of stylization very different from those much more naturalistic pictures, he still has a frustrating indifference to storytelling and pace, with scenes that meander endlessly (presumably, as with Bujalski’s present-day movies, these are largely improvised) to no particular point.  One senses from time to time that there are metaphors in place regarding the inability to communicate and degrees of social isolation, yet they rarely have any impact.

It’s as though one part of Bujalski was longing to make a film that could find an audience outside of film festivals, as contemporaries like the Duplass brothers and Lynn Shelton have started to do, but the rest of him just couldn’t bear to complete the process.  So Computer Chess has characters that seem as though they could be in a commercial movie, like a clueless virginal programmer (Patrick Riester), who barely even realizes he’s the subject of repeated seduction attempts, the one and only girl in the programming group (Robin Schwartz) who’s a figure of widespread fascination, and an abrasive competitor (Myles Paige) who can’t seem to find a room and has to look for a new place to sleep each night.  There’s even a self-actualization group staying at the hotel at the same time as the chess programmers, indulging in such extreme therapeutic behavior as simulated birthing and chants, which allows for some very Altmanesque interaction between the groups.

And yet it’s Altmanesque without any of the showmanship, surprise or emotion Altman could bring to his seemingly casual comedy-dramas.  (Of all Altman’s films, Computer Chess seems most influenced, weirdly enough, by the resounding flop HEALTH.)  Bujalski seems to have a profound allergy to anything resembling plot or forward motion, and the movie just sits there, with occasional surreal detours and much aimless chatter.  After a while, the film burns off all the goodwill it’s earned with its imaginatively analog style and sprightly premise, and simply becomes tiresome, lacking even the moments of character insight that have occasionally enlightened Bujalski’s other (somewhat overrated) films.

Computer Chess won the Alfred P. Sloan prize at Sundance, given annually to a film about science (in truth, there’s never much competition for this one), and it seems destined for a career at other film festivals and in eventual VOD release.  Clearly Bujalski is making exactly the films he wants to be making, so it’s no doubt somewhat Philistine to wish one could be even slightly entertaining.  With Computer Chess, he might have reached beyond the indie film grandmaster set if he’d only wanted to.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."