Subtle and mesmerizing, Computer Chess informally meditates on the nature of consciousness, our capacity for comprehension, and group sex.
Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation, Beeswax) convincingly places us in the early ’80s where a few dozen young computer scientists from various prestigious universities (as well as one outspoken maverick with serious social boundary issues named Papageorge) annually congregate at a cheap hotel to pit their chess programs against each other in a tournament. Although the winning program then gets a chance at some prize money, that isn’t really what appeals to these contestants. For the teams involved it’s the science that intrigues. For them, sculpting a piece of software capable of defeating a human being at one our oldest and most revered games is a quest which is worth it for its own sake.
Today’s chess programs are so far superior to even the best human players that researchers have by-and-large lost interest in refining them, but in the early ’80s it was more akin to building a self-driving car. Anyone in the know knew it could be done in principle — it really was just a matter of finding the right logic. Alhough Bujalski isn’t a technician, he shows commendable insight into the nature of programming in this way. Forgoing the opportunity to depict the programmers as jibber-jabbering hacker-sorcerers whose fingers blur across the keyboard like stenographers, Bujalski’s characters are quiet and contemplative when their programs misbehave.
The code, which start out as nothing more than a transcript of the carefully clarified logic originating from their own minds, takes on the properties of a simplified mind of its own with its own foibles and intentionality — a little like a child, perhaps. When it makes mistakes its creators peer into it to try and understand why it made the mistake. They wonder what it could possibly be thinking and, by extension, what they must have been thinking when they wrote it in the first place. As the African couples-encounter guide, Keneiloe (Tishuan Scott), whose group is sharing the hotel, intones to one of his flock: “Look deep within me to find what is inside you.”
Juxtaposing the monk-like candor of the programmers with the aging counterculture hedonism of the couples encounter group is simultaneously funny and thought-provoking. Both groups are ultimately desperate to make a connection: the programmers through their programs and the flabby hippies through their genitals. That Bujalski could isolate the shared humanity in both people who play games with machines as intermediaries and people who pretend to be passing through a uterus made of other people demonstrates a splendid sense of humor as well as a deep and compassionate intuition.
The film is also remarkably not tedious, as it easily could have been in lesser hands. Performances are unaffected and warm. The VHS aesthetic establishes period verisimilitude, not a self-indulgent “because-I-can” mentality. The plot is practically non-existent: one guy gets locked out of his room, another group shares a joint and waxes philosophical in only semi-comprehensible fashion, but the meandering feel of the story only enhances our fly-on-the wall perspective of this odd little slice of life.
In some ways, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Computer Chess is a story about parents and their children. 2001 is a story about what they take from us. Computer Chess is a story about what we give them.