Learning From The Masters Of Cinema: Andrew Bujalski's COMPUTER CHESS

James Marsh, Asian Editor
Last year the Masters of Cinema series made a somewhat controversial move when they announced that a pair of contemporary films from two up-and-coming independent American filmmakers were being added to the collection. Antonio Campos' Simon Killer and Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess would be sharing shelf space with revered auteurs like Fellini, Lang and Welles under the collective "Masters of Cinema" banner. While this is not the first time "new" films have been included - Johnnie To' Mad Detective and Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Tokyo Sonata were among the very first titles released on Blu-ray - it was difficult to argue that either Campos or Bujalski had yet established themselves nationally or internationally, nor were their films likely to be particularly well-known or appreciated, if at all.

While I'm sure the good people who curate the Masters of Cinema series are not trying to claim, by acquiring these titles, that either director has accomplished as much with the medium as Fellini or Welles (or even To and Kurosawa for that matter), this move to include contemporary works instead shows an encouraging attitude towards world cinema. There are not a finite number of classic films out there. New masterpieces are being created every day, worthy of as much consideration and intellectual analysis as those by earlier generations of established filmmakers. Across the pond, The Criterion Collection has shown a similar interest in contemporary filmmakers - even those not called Wes Anderson - as films from fledgling directors such as Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture), Steve McQueen (Hunger) and Andrew Haigh (Weekend) also debuted on DVD/Blu-ray among their hallowed spine numbers.

That is not to say that the tastes of the Masters of Cinema collective are to be embraced without question, but rather used as a helpful barometer to help us better understand their tastes and interests in contemporary world cinema, as well as their obvious affection for Pasolini, Antonioni and Mizoguchi. When it comes to Simon Killer, for example, I struggle to see precisely what is worth championing in a fairly unremarkable quasi-intellectual thriller from a filmmaker with great ambition but lacking the cinematic dexterity to realise them on screen. In the case of Bujalski's Computer Chess, however, its qualities and accomplishments are far more obvious.

Set in the early 1980s, on the eve of a technological dawn that would see computers become a more tangible, versatile and perceptible part of our daily lives, an assortment of intelligent, dedicated yet socially inept computer scientists descend on a small Texas hotel for an annual computer chess tournament. Over the course of a single weekend, teams from MIT, CalTech and a number of other universities and assorted computer development companies will see their machines duke it out across 64 squares of black and white. 

Dispersed between the various challenges the competitors (attempt to) socialise, discuss their work, philosophies and how they foresee computer technology - and their own contributions in particular - evolving and influencing the future. Artificial Intelligence, military defense systems and even online dating networks all come under discussion by this collection of misfits, outcasts and oddballs whose predilections lean more towards coding and cognitive hardware than movies, music or sex.  These nerds hail from an era long before geek became chic, though the same cannot be said for the filmmakers.

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Most immediately striking is the way Computer Chess looks. Shot in black & white in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Bujalski and cinematographer Matthias Grunsky used vintage video equipment from the period (or even earlier), and the film by turns aspires to an amateur documentary aesthetic or, by the director's own admission, "bad public access television." While there was a danger that this kind of fetishised nostalgia might have grated in less skillful hands, coming off as self-indulgent and hipsterish, Bujalski pulls it off brilliantly, helped by a cast of wonderfully awkward and naturalistic performers, many of whom were not professional actors. 

Among the few familiar faces in the cast is Dazed and Confused's Wiley Wiggins (albeit with prosthetic nose and dodgy moustache) [Edit: "Real nose! fake mustache. The plan to use a fake nose didn't work on camera, so we used a mustache instead." - Wiley Wiggins], and Myles Paige from Bujalski's earlier film, Funny Ha Ha. The lack of seasoned professionals in front of the camera only adds to the unglamorous nature of the occasion and the palpable levels of discomfort on display, as these normally solitary, secretive individuals are forced into social, even confrontational situations. While opening with a passive, observational perspective, the film slowly hones in on Peter (Patrick Riester), a particularly awkward student, whose obsession with debugging his computer brings him closer first to rival student and sole female participant Shelly (Robin Schwartz) and later with a married couple at the hotel as part of a relationship therapy retreat also taking place that weekend.

Bujalski's script, while littered with technically dense conversations about advanced mathematics, coding and larger scale issues rippling outwards from these singular individuals, also has great fun highlighting the ironic juxtapositions between the regimented confrontation of chess, the painfully stilted competition attendees, and the aggressive open-mindedness of the couples attending their communication workshop. Inevitably all three opposing worlds collide in amusing and somewhat devastating ways, while the film's own formative rigidity also begins to collapse in on itself.

This new dual format release of Computer Chess from Masters of Cinema arrives packed to the gills with special features. Beyond the 1080p presentation of the film, Andrew Bujalski's 2013 short film Analog Goose is included, together with extended interviews with the director, actor and retro game enthusiast Wiley Wiggins, as well as producer Alex Lipschultz. There are two separate audio commentaries, one from Deep Blue programmer Murray Campbell, comparing the real-life world of computer chess developers with their onscreen depictions, and a second commentary from "enthusiastic stoner" Ken Osborne, who proceeds to get high and drink scotch while watching the film. There are also two trailers and a 56-page booklet featuring a fantastic essay from MoC's own Craig Keller.

Overall, Masters of Cinema have put together a great package for a film that gets more entertaining and intriguing with repeat viewings. While it is far from a perfect film, Computer Chess is a unique piece of work that refuses to conform to any kind of structure, character arc or emotional payoff that are imposed on more mainstream, traditional comedies. I sincerely doubt that Computer Chess will grow to become a pillar of cinematic history, but nevertheless I wholly appreciate and applaud the love and attention it has been given here. Fans of the film should definitely pick up this release, as a better package down the line seems almost inconceivable - short of including an actual vintage chess-playing computer. For those who have yet to experience the oddball delights of Bujalski's film, rest assured they are in safe hands.

Computer Chess is available in the UK on Dual Format Blu-ray/DVD now
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  • wileywiggins

    Real nose! fake mustache. The plan to use a fake nose didn't work on camera, so we used a mustache instead. Great write-up.

  • marshy00

    Cheers, Wiley! Have updated the article accordingly. Thanks for reading and congrats on the film!

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