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Strange Doings Among Chess-Mad '80s Coders

By NPR Staff | 07/18/2013

"I don't mind putting something pleasant out into the world," said filmmaker Andrew Bujalski in a recent New York Magazine interview.

You don't hear that too often outside the sphere of general-audience entertainment, let alone from a writer-director widely credited with pioneering mumblecore, the slackerish mini-movement that never really was.

Yet Bujalski's latest comedy, a willfully grungy little number about America's early computer geeks, simmers with the same anarchic joy and appetite for weirdness as his other movies, Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax. You might call the movie a science procedural in which the human distractions prove critical.

The beguiling Computer Chess is about the dawn — one of many, but that's another story — of the tech revolution. It's also a reminder that you don't need state-of-the-art toys to make a formally playful comedy about man versus machine.

Set in a seedy early-1980s hotel that's hosting a tournament between teams of computer-chess software writers, the movie was shot in black and white using an old digital camera, rather than Bujalski's beloved 16-mm rig. The nerd factor runs high among the awkward men (and one nervous young woman) hunched over their behemoth machines. Compared to this lot, Mark Zuckerberg and his cohort look like avatars of suave chic.

Played by a mix of actors, software geeks, friends of Bujalski and one film critic, the members of this monkish crew are as uncomfortable in their skins as they are intense about trying to program their computers to defeat fleshly chess players on opposing teams.

Computer Chess is a period piece, steeped in nostalgia both for the bulky old hardware in play and for the advance guard of profound social change that's wrangling it, these circuit jockeys with their bowl haircuts, humongous glasses and soft midriffs. Bujalski is far from the first to note that geniuses often suck at living, but the cultivated aimlessness of his pacing and his fondness for these intense brainiacs are exhilarating.

At once paranoid and prescient ("The Pentagon is interested!"), the film's geeks wander the hotel's hallways and ballrooms, lugging their enormous machines, in a perfect stew of mutual suspicion and wild futuristic optimism. From time to time they bump up against that other great belief system of the 1980s, the human-potential movement, whose est-y seekers of intimacy bury their fingers in gooey loaves of bread, hug without discrimination, and in one instance try to draw one virginal software developer into a triangular tryst.

Where they fail, a prowling hooker who's not what she seems may yet succeed. Late in Computer Chess there comes a sly swerve from mockumentary into puckish sci-fi, a move of such loving whimsy that you want to clap your hands at the spectacle of a grumpy computer with a late-blooming sense of agency.

Bujalski's mumblecore contemporaries — Joe Swanberg, Greta Gerwig, the Duplass brothers — have been moving steadily toward the mainstream. Bujalski has no beef with pop, but he's no hipster, and he's enough of his own man to admit that while trendies declare undying love for John Lennon, his favorite Beatle is Paul McCartney. And yet with Computer Chess, a long-gestating project he turned to while he was working on something Hollywood, he's gone smaller and quirkier than ever. It's an unscheduled left turn that's borne sweet fruit. (Recommended)
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