Discover This: Computer Chess

Copyright: Rapid Eye Movies

Long before the hipster there was the nerd who now, thanks to hipster culture and its appropriation of nerd codes and styles, seems to have become an extinct species. There was a time when “uncool” people wore horn-rimmed glasses and weird hairstyles unironically. The preferred domain of these nerd types was the world of computers and their codes consisted of zeros and ones. Nerds were outsiders and loners and it was easy to make fun of the fact that they were living in a parallel universe. Mumblecore director Andrew Bujalski now remembers the peak of 1980s nerd computer culture in his new film and has produced a little masterpiece of modern retro-history and ironic social observations.

Copyright: Rapid Eye Movies
Copyright: Rapid Eye Movies

One of the greatest things about the cinematic experience is that we, the audience, can enter a different world for a couple of hours and be amazed by a filmic (re-)construction of something that is completely foreign to most of us. The world of computer chess that is unravelling here in a remote hotel at a congress somewhere is the USA couldn’t be stranger and yet more fascinating to observe. We are pulled into a reality of programming and hardware, artificial intelligence, and social seclusion where real-life people compete in tournaments against computers.

It might seem difficult to accept the commitment that Bujalski asks of his viewers at first, but once we set foot in his documentary-style fiction, we learn to look at nerds in this film with the same kind of love and compassion with which Bujalski does.

Copyright: Rapid Eye Movies
Copyright: Rapid Eye Movies

These programmers and specialists might not be street-wise or smooth-talking, but they have a great passion and a mission and, although they don’t know it yet, they are the pioneers of the media age we now live in. All this might sound very pompous and serious, but Computer Chess is mostly a great comedy of manners and a winking look at a sociotope that has long been replaced by the sexy image computers have nowadays.

To understand these nerds better, Bujalski brings them in contact with another group that was an often laughed-at phenomenon of the 1980s: the freedom-loving, sexually open New Agers who turned hippie-culture into a semi-religious group experience. The film’s most hilarious moments take place when the clash of sub-cultures reaches its peak during the nerds’ conference. When the computer chess organisers realize they haven’t booked the conference room long enough, the finale of the tournament must take place in the presence of the New Agers’ couple therapy session, ecstatic moaning and all. In another scene, young outsider Bishton (a virgin, naturally) is invited into the hotel room of one of the couples to discuss the limitedness of the 64 squares of a chessboard in a world of free love.

Copyright: Rapid Eye Movies
Copyright: Rapid Eye Movies

It is probably no exaggeration to claim that Computer Chess is like nothing you have ever seen before. Fine-grained does not only describe the portrayal of a very specific social group in question, but also the low-res aesthetics of the film itself. Shot with a Sony AVC-3260 in U-matic, the film doesn’t only look like it’s from another time, it also feels like it can’t possibly be made in 2013. As soon as the camera pans, the images begin to blur, greys dominate the low contrast black-and-white framing, and sometimes the frame flickers for a second as if the technology was overwhelmed by being rediscovered for the big screen. We are sucked deeper and deeper into the vortex of magnetic stripes and low definition images and realize that this viewing experience makes perfect sense in a time-travelling film that gets weirder and weirder and has a few obscure surprises waiting for us.

Looking through my horn-rimmed glasses while typing these words on a MacBook Pro, I realize that we owe a lot to the computer nerds of the 1980s, especially after experiencing the love and admiration with which Andrew Bujalski portrays them. It’s also a comforting side note to see that all outsiders are the coolest before they enter the mainstream and one takes them seriously. Unlike the hipsters, these nerds were special and didn’t just feel that they were.

Check out the great retro-homepage here: http://www.computerchessmovie.com/

Computer Chess, USA 2013, 93 min.

director: Andrew Bujalski, cinematography: Matthias Grunsky, actors: Wiley Wiggins, Patrick Riester, Myles Page, Gerald Peary, language: English, distribution: Rapid Eye Movies

Berlin screenings (all original with German subtitles): Fsk, Lichtblick, Central, Kino in der Brotfabrik, Filmrauschpalast

Discover This! is a weekly Berlin–based film comment.

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