Monday, 30 December 2013

Computer Chess

Days and nights, weeks and months and seasons
rolling through me, so chronologically
computer age, computer age,
computer age

Off to the cinema to see Computer Chess, a newish film by top mumblecore auteur Andrew Bujalski. He's one of those "last name directors", like Jodorowsky or Eisenstein, so for the rest of this review I'll call him Bujalski. I often wonder if people in the future will realise that Bujalski was his last name. Chess has an intriguing premise but for the most part falls flat, although it sticks in the mind.

It's a mish-mash of Altman's Nashville and Aronofsky's Pi with Bujalski's mumblecore aesthetic, set during a computer chess tournament some time in the early 1980s. With the exception of one brief colour sequence it was shot with a black and white video camera, and the footage is left in the old-fashioned aspect ratio of vintage Hollywood and television. Bujalski shot his earlier films with celluloid, and edited them the old-fashioned way, but for Chess he had to use a computer and a big old CRT monitor (I'm guessing it was an old Apple Studio Display). The actors are drawn from the provinces, and everybody in the film wears digital watches and smokes indoors, and no-one complains about this. The attention to verisimilitude is very impressive. Like Woody Allen's Zelig and Steve Martin's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, the gimmick got the film's foot in the door, and it seems to have had more press coverage and a much wider release than Beeswax, Bujalski's previous film. I would not be surprised if mainstream Hollywood asks him to direct a romantic comedy starring Uma Thurman, or a remake of Klute starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Angelina Jolie. Unfortunately, just like Zelig and Plaid, it doesn't have much payload, and I suspect that the same script set in the modern day would have been no less effective.

It's fascinating to compare it with American Hustle, which is set during a similar period, but filmed in the conventional Hollywood way, with a few sequences intended to look like black and white video shot with a spy camera. You can imagine Bujalski's insignificant computer programmers coexisting with the high-powered conmen of Russell's film. In a particularly odd coincidence, Amy Adams' former stripper has the same frizzy hairstyle as the resident call-girl of the hotel in which Computer Chess takes place.

This chap physically resembles the younger Steve Jobs, although his character is much more low-key. Actor Wiley Wiggins is an actual computer programmer - they call them "software developers" nowadays - who is one of Bujalski's stock players.

And it's hard to watch Chess without imaging some of the characters going on to be multi-billionaires, but on the other hand Larry Ellison and so forth weren't artificial intelligence researchers or mathematicians, they were for the most part businessmen who knew enough about the computer market and fundamental human desires to make money out of this new field. I'm not an expert on AI, but I surmise that the characters in Computer Chess spent most of the 1980s and 1990s embarking in one frustrating failure after another, and were old men by the time their ideas started to pay off. A long time ago there was a 1:1 mapping between the population of chess enthusiasts and computer users. The people who made money from computers realised in the late 1970s that those days were numbered.

A lady programmer - there she is.

Hahaha, numbered. Because computers. The actors are unknowns and do a remarkably good job. Robin Schwarz, the lady programmer - she's in the photograph just above - is actually a film editor, but I can imagine her cornering the market for geeky lady programmers. The other standout is a chap called Myles Paige, who plays independent programmer Papageorge, a well-dressed man who seems to know his programming onions but is otherwise a fa├žade. He's alternately sinister and pathetic. The cast includes two programmers, two film editors, an author, an expert on data visualisation, and a film studies professor, and they do a remarkably good job. In its favour the film doesn't try to mock the characters, and none of them come across as typical Hollywood-style geeks*. Patrick Riester's awkward teenager could be any awkward teenager, not specifically a computer nerd. For the most part they seem like normal people who just happen to know what an iteration is and how to swing it.

* Schwarz' performance verges on the cartoonish, but I suspect this is Bujalski's fault, and I'm not just saying that because she's nice.

But sadly the film doesn't really tell us much about these people. In trying to present them as ordinary geniuses I never had a sense of their personalities or for that matter their genius. The computery aspects feel authentic, but I suspect that Bujalski wasn't particularly interested in computers, or chess - or even the 1980s - and for the most part the chess is kept in the background. None of the chess matches are really presented as gripping duels in the manner of Casino Royale or indeed Tim Rice's Chess. The characters for the most part stay the same throughout the film, which works in the case of Papageorge - his inability to change is his defining characteristic - but feels hollow with everybody else. The one sustained awkward moment could have come from any teen film or television movie.

My only real experience with the kind of people portrayed in Computer Chess is of Linux fans during the days when Linux came on several CDs with photocopied inserts and you just accepted that the sound would never work, and I think the key problem with the film is its authenticity. The film has too much of it, but it's the wrong kind, the real kind. For example, the decision to film with a black and white video camera is probably period-accurate, but it feels odd, because I associate the early 1980s with colour videotape or colour 16mm. A real-life amateur documentary on a computer chess tournament of the early 1980s might well have been videotaped, but no-one would have seen it; a more professional documentary would resemble this classic episode of Commercial Breaks from 1984, about the hilarious demise of Imagine Software:

Which seems to have directly inspired the BBC's Micro Men, which told of the rise and fall of Uncle Sir Clive Sinclair - co-starring Martin Freeman of The Hobbit as the co-founder of Acorn Electronics, no less:

Computer Chess has a melancholic quality that these documentary dramas lack, and it aims for something higher, but I'm not convinced that it's any better. Aronofsky's Pi was mostly nonsense, but it was dramatic, engaging nonsense. Computer Chess feels like a glimpse into the real world, which is unfortunate because the real world is for the most part dreary, which is why we go to the cinema.

There is a very brief and perfunctory nod to something extraordinary. It seems that one of the computers has come alive! But no sooner is this plot thread introduced than it's dropped, and it feels arbitrary. The only overtly supernatural element is relayed second-hand by a character who is probably drunk, and I have a sense that Bujalski simply wasn't interested in telling a sci-fi tale. It has to be said that most of the science fiction in Aronofsky's Pi was similarly explicable, and I suspect that Aronofsky was no more interested in sci-fi than Bujalski, but Aronofsky wanted to tell a gripping, ripping yarn, whereas Bujalski... I'm not entirely sure what he was going for. Indie immortality.

Myles Paige as Papageorge

A brief excursion into altered reality

Overall Computer Chess put me in mind of those films from the 1970s where nothing much happens but it feels sad at the end, except that in Chess nothing much happens and I didn't feel anything. The symbolism and some of the situations are very simple - one of the characters is stuck in a personal rut, so the editing has him repeat his actions several times, and another character's plight is illustrated by framing him against a square - but these tricks come across as facile rather than revelatory. Nonetheless I felt enough about Computer Chess to write his post six weeks after seeing the film, so there's that.

I saw it at the Curzon Soho in London, England. An art cinema with art films and the audience laughs politely at the gags. The bartender is suave and people go there to be seen. Specifically to be seen walking out of the cinema whilst tossing a scarf over their shoulder in the style of Benedict Cumberbatch. One of the trailers was for a documentary about trawler fishing called Leviathan. The end.