I share Computer Chess director Andrew Bujalski`s fetish for early electronics: the computer towers that rise to your waist, the cumbersome consumer cameras, and the analog synths with more knobs and switches than keys. Like me, Bujalski doesn't know how to translate this adornment into a cohesive film that puts its audience before its pretensions.
Computer Chess follows a group of computer programmers, most of which come from ivy league schools, that gather at a highway hotel for a competition (in 1980) that will pit their chess programs against each other, culminating with a match between the reigning program and chess wiz Pat Henderson. Bujalski savors the pedestrian details of human interaction and often does it well, best evidenced in Mutual Appreciation (2005). With a goofy setup and a more straightforward attempt at comedy, I expected Computer Chess to be Bujalski`s most accessible film yet. Instead, Computer Chess is an indulgent, insular letdown.
I have to admire the film`s commitment to its concept, presenting the story as a faux-documentary shot in 4:3 black and white on PortaPak cameras from the '70s (and yet the audio is crystal clear.) With such a promising concept, there is a lot of wasted comedic potential. And yet, Bujalski`s script plays it straight, opening the film with a mind numbing group debate on the future of computer chess. There is humor to anti-social programmers who take their work seriously and never realize how silly their jargon sounds but that humor only goes so far.
Bujalski becomes as bored with the material as I did, going on psychedelic tangents throughout the film`s second half that lead nowhere. Bujalski made a film for himself. It`s a film I can respect but I can never enjoy nor imagine those who would.