Dir. Andrew Bujalski, USA, 93 minutes, 2012
If punk was the Dyonisian death-throe of the early 1980’s, the grey-on-grey dot matrix emerging computer world was the era’s zen side – minimalist, marginal, monotonous, monochrome, and as surprising as the curser that blinked on and off as keys clicked loudly. Not throbbed, not pulsated, but blinked. This is anti-intensity.
You can’t say that Computer Chess is sui generis. No period film is, and this fictional look back recreates a feel and atmosphere as few period movies can. Yet in an indie scene of clones and winking send-ups, Computer Chess takes on the improbable, and turns out a wondrous world of grey. The slide-rule may be gone, along with Tandy computers and disco, but at least you have this to keep in your pen-pack, close to your heart.
Andrew Bujalski’s starless overnight tale is the outcome of an eight-page treatment and a shooting journey to an Austin Texas hotel. The story — a computer chess tournament, with players and teams from elite places like Cal Tech and MIT. The only marquee names here are the universities.
Underplayed, as it should be, by mostly non-actors (with film critic Gerald Peary as the tournament organizer, no doubt preparing his acceptance speech for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar), Computer Chess plays like a pokerfaced comedy. If the sound weren’t properly synched to the black-and–white image, you might see it as new take on What’s Up, Tiger Lily. Add the evening sub-plots, complete with encounters with an EST-like sensitivity cult and a villainous late-night prowler, and you have the one-night cheap horror pic, with overbearing ambient sound, but minus the horror.
I’ve heard comparisons with David Lynch silent deadpan with over-amped sound from lights and fans, and parallels to The Shining in its hotel setting. Any improvised work with silences will bring endless suggestions to fill its gaps. That’s why we have internet film critics and comments sections.
The brilliance of Computer Chess is in its minimalist production design – from grey to grey to grey – eggrolls at the bar, Muzak, keys that click too loud on the keyboard, the world before Commodore. The clothes are the best (or the worst – as they say, worthless, but priceless) that Good Will could supply. And beyond the nerd’s eye view is some elegance in cinematography from Matthias Grunsky, with enough contrasts emerging from the grey miasma to evoke the wobbly geometries of Op Art. It might even make you believe in Mumblecore, for 90 minutes, because it looks like something. You’ll also remember an initial impulse of minimalism, which was to play for laughs.