Computer Chess (2013), directed by Andrew Bujalski.
Nothing short of unique, Computer Chess is a surreal cautionary tale set in the early 1980s centred around a group of programming hobbyists who pit custom AIs against each other in annual machine-vs-machine chess tournaments. Its form is as idiosyncratically retro as its content: Bujalski chose to film on some of the earliest commercial video cameras, both for the vintage authenticity and to add "a transcendental character to the image," that would, according to cinematographer Matthias Grunsky, “help express the sometimes unexplainable things that happen between man and computer.” True enough to the imperfect and unpredictable technology of the time, bright lights burn trails in the lens and people blur through fuzzy grey matter; like the characters, we chase glimpses of ghosts in the machine.
The search for higher artificial intelligence gives rise to some unexpected philosophical inquiries, but the socially-aloof nerd herd are often too short-sighted to grasp what anything could, or will, mean — a big part of the comedy comes from knowing that these hapless dorks will one day inherit the Earth (for an age of technological enlightenment, things are almost comically unexciting.) But what is really driving these computer-obsessives, tinkerers and scientists? What is happening between man and computer—or more worryingly, who is driving who? As we watch them struggle and fail to break out of their own unconscious grids and behavioural loops it becomes clear that the quest for a machine with a soul is far less pertinent than the quest for the soul in man. Without that we’re all just pieces on a board.
Bujalski also slyly reflects the rise of independent filmmakers and the birth of his own child in the narrative, and the criss-crossing lines between hobby, obsession, love and family stealthily work their way into the fold without any explicit foregrounding.
Four features in, Mr. Bujalski continues to be one of American cinema’s most distinct voices, and much like the unassuming pioneers at the heart of Computer Chess—who also focus on the wide implications of imperceptibly small actions—his influence may be greater felt in the years to come. Or maybe it already is. Computer Chess is out now on VOD and it’s totally worth owning.