Analog Warmth: On Computer Chess

By Akiva GottliebAugust 5, 2013

Analog Warmth: On Computer Chess

A DECADE AGO, an undemonstrative but radical movie about a young woman’s postgraduate drift and failures of nerve called Funny Ha Ha (2002) stuttered its way into second-tier festivals and indifferently attended campus screenings. The movie was no crossover hit, but many of us who saw it could immediately identify the now-36-year-old writer/director Andrew Bujalski as an innovator. The halting rhythms, gawky amateur performances, mundane scenarios, and dialogue you need to lean forward to hear — all the superficial tropes of a loose aggregation called mumblecore — they came together first in Funny Ha Ha, a movie as sharp and bittersweet today as it seemed back then.

But there’s a fundamental aesthetic disconnect between Bujalski’s films and most of the projects absorbed by the mumblecore label. The slapdash early works of Joe Swanberg, the Duplass brothers, and even Lena Dunham — all of whom have since taken steps toward (or beyond) professional competence and commercial viability — can seem visually indifferent and hastily blocked. (Swanberg’s ludicrous arrangement of an office setting in Hannah Takes The Stairs (2007) remains a low point.) They’re all made with digital video cameras, the most cost-effective windows onto cost-effective living. Working at a measured pace, Bujalski deliberately shot Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation (2005), and Beeswax (2009) on grainy, cumbersome 16mm film stock. His characters can seem like shiftless tumbleweeds, but the sharply edited films are never less than fully assured. The same guy whom critics held responsible for this contemporary cinema of slack was mentored at Harvard by the exacting structuralist Chantal Akerman, and the influence of her long-take minimalism on the less-detached Bujalski is never entirely absent. The peculiar alchemy of Bujalski’s fussy and homespun films — in which the inarticulateness is never arbitrary — is their ability to seem both programmatic and unselfconscious.

In retrospect, the analog warmth generated by Funny Ha Ha wasn’t about its anthropological portrayal of a highly educated cultural subgroup — who cares? — or the microscopic quality of its comic observation. Rather, it was the thrill of experiencing the development of a specific cinematic grammar, marked by desultory rhythms, pockets of inaction and stabs of punctuation. In his more recent, slightly more expansive Beeswax, about a vintage-clothing store owner and her comparably carefree twin sister, the camera (like the characters) negotiates the spatial dynamics of an economy that troubles the boundaries of business and friendship. Here, Bujalski avoids big-picture establishing shots and chooses instead to linger on doorways, shoulders, and a wheelchair, which one character uses for mobility and another for play. Every gesture and every object signifies.

Digital video allows for easy revisions and rearrangements, and I can imagine Bujalski finding this tendency spiritually inappropriate for chronicling youthful impermanence and waste. The shared trait of all the most formally inventive films is an anxiety about which technologies can most authentically represent the intensity of consciousness. The probability that Bujalski's films will remain relevant and revelatory for far longer than those of his  micro-budget peers can be chalked up to his technological particularity. Bujalski is always thinking about the logic of the camera — not just camera in the abstract, but the particular model. He’s not the sort of innovator who fashions a new tool; he’s the one who imagines the most surprising uses for the tools we consider outmoded.


In the opening moments of his slippery and entirely excellent new movie Computer Chess, a young man points his PortaPak camera up toward the sky, and is quickly interrupted and chastised by a superior: “Don’t ever shoot at the sun!” The scene quickly articulates the film’s fixation with impulses and reprimands, moves and countermoves, but also its willingness to align its exploration of the limits of the human with the limits of the filmable.

Computer Chess is an existential comedy about, among other things, the various surrogates, extensions, and augmentations that promise to intensify the pleasure of being alive. It’s also about a camera. Bujalski’s longtime cinematographer Matthias Grunsky shot Computer Chess in black-and-white with a Sony AVC-3260 video camera, developed in 1969, that uses analog tubes to convert the captured image into electronic signals. (For this reason, a bright light source like the sun can leave a burn mark on the image — a sort of ghostly trace.) The boxy 4:3 aspect ratio resembles a cheap public-access television documentary, though the narrative quickly jettisons any pretense of Direct Cinema realism. Set at an annual gathering of socially maladapted computer programmers in a dingy Austin, Texas motel, circa 1980, the movie finds its characters — and these non-actors do seem found as much as created — standing at the precipice of the posthuman. The film thus fashions an affective present tense that seems haunted by the future as much as by the past. In a time when even the word “computer” sounds antiquated, this movie wants to know: how would outmoded technology make sense of what we’ve done with it?

Computer Chess sets itself down among the sort of men — and fatefully, one young woman, Shelly, the first female programmer to ever attend the conference — who want to be able to distinguish the difference between "real artificial intelligence" and "artificial real intelligence." One guy claims to know through calculation and deductive reasoning that drinking three scotches is better for the brain than four or two. In this hidebound milieu, Bujalski’s most distinctive comic creation, the brash Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige), is considered a maverick because he lacks institutional affiliation (and a motel room). Destined to roam the hallways and stairwells, he presents a free-floating menace to this gentlemanly competition: “I bet you and I are the only ones here who even understand that programming has a feminine side,” he tells Shelly, imperiously refusing to pause between sentences to allow her a response.

The programmers, emissaries from MIT, Cal Tech, and other undeclared, potentially nefarious organizations, stage a series of Turing tests in the motel conference room. The bulky computers play chess against other computers, and at the end the winning machine gets to face off against a human. Crucially, the process is not fully automated. The humans have to choose whether or not to make the move prescribed by the computer, and are thus forced to contemplate whether unorthodox decisions qualify as glitches or evidence of a more sublime logic. As the movie progresses, it seems to fall prey to its own glitches and inconsistencies, narrative hiccups and dysfunctions, intensified editing, slippages between sound and vision, even a sequence shot in 16mm color. A tightly controlled Cold War-era intrigue (a sports movie, really) eventually spirals outward into something looser and more unnerving. As one professor explains: “Everything is not everything. There’s more.”


In a recent interview with Phil Coldiron at Cinema Scope, Bujalski said the following:

The scary thing about the 21st century at least as far as the arts are concerned is that it has all become entirely too artificially intelligent. Certainly you feel that when you look at what’s coming out of Hollywood, it often seems designed and programmed by robots in a way that doesn’t communicate to my kind of human.

The “intelligence” we think we discover in cinema is always already artificial — or at the very least technologically mediated — but one of the animating principles of mumblecore, however rarely achieved, is the reduction of intellectual distance between creator and character, a sense that any intelligence made palpable onscreen is a shared intelligence.

By intelligent design, Bujalski’s films generate intrigue by declining to distinguish between major and minor events — business and beeswax — or in this case between a game of chess and what one character (perhaps facetiously) calls “World War 3.” One of Computer Chess’ better jokes is the difficulty of determining whether the shabbiness of the conference setting is an indication of this project’s low priority or its secrecy. Is this the birth of Silicon Valley or a regional hobby expo? As with Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 or the Eschaton sequence of Infinite Jest, the movie projects a comfort with formal puzzles and games that may or may not be deadly serious. As some conspiratorial after-hours chitchat reminds us, human progress is almost always immediately weaponized — and chess is a game of Manichean logic.

As with his earlier depictions of 20-something malaise, Computer Chess seems appropriately mystified by the consequences of free will, and by any attraction or repulsion that cannot be ascribed to electromagnetic force. The visionary rationalist utopians are forced to share the motel’s ballroom with a couples-therapy encounter group led by a self-possessed African guru, and somehow cannot help from being drawn into the orbit of this Human Potential Movement — very much against their will.

In what feels like a climactic scene, our shy, boyish protagonist Peter (Patrick Riester) is coaxed into a bedroom by a proudly self-actualized swinger couple who see the repressed kid as an easy target for initiation. While Peter willfully avoids direct eye contact, the wife encourages him to cast aside his codes and rules and squares and take his finger off the repress button, and he counters by explaining that, well, um, actually, a chessboard is an expansive network of possibility. Given his limits, he seemingly cannot process attraction or intrigue outside a closed system, and he flees the room at the first sight of exposed female flesh — a sensory overload.

Bujalski, whose previous films are expressly concerned with female subjectivity, imagines the motel’s handful of women as mysterious, unknowable, and possibly superhuman — for this boys’ club, they are destabilizing elements, far too sentient for comfort. When one character predicts that the future of computers is in dating — and in fact, Christian Rudder, the feckless male lead in Funny Ha Ha, made millions by launching OKCupid in 2004 — another programmer misunderstands the concept: “Computers are gonna start dating each other?” he asks, and it’s not clear that the thought doesn’t turn him on.

To grant machines the ability to approximate human thought is to declare war upon Enlightenment notions of a “natural self” and individual freedom. As N. Katherine Hayles puts it in How We Became Posthuman: “To pose the question of ‘what can think’ inevitably also changes, in a reverse feedback loop, the terms of ‘who can think.’” After the dawn of artificial intelligence, is there any way to meaningfully disentangle the technology from the human subject? The pioneers of Computer Chess are introverted nerds, but spending all day in front of a computer no longer prevents one from being fully socialized.

By the end of the conference, Peter gets closer to something we humans can recognize as love, even if we don’t see it expressed. Late one night, unmoored by his team computer’s unaccountable decision to voluntarily lose games against the other computers, he decides to play it against a human subject, wheeling the bulky machine over to Shelly’s room. Does human affection represent a failure of systems, or did the machine know exactly what it was doing?

Bujalski’s first period piece is a trippy enough assemblage to qualify as a quantum leap in ambition, but it remains fully of a piece with his mumblier work, in that its subject remains miscommunication — this time interhuman as well as intrahuman. Almost everything worth paying attention to these days, and just as much that’s worth ignoring, represents the collaboration between a human being and a computer — neither one strictly active or passive. New forms of communication don’t make us any easier to read, or make the flows of desire any less surprising or uncontainable. In its attempt to defamiliarize the human/computer relationship, taking us back to zero hour to render this interaction anew in all its corporeal strangeness, Computer Chess is also attempting to resolve one of the most pressing quandaries of broadband-era cinema: how to fashion a realism that properly accounts for the amount of time we spend in front of, or attached to, our screens.

In what has to be the most unnerving moment in this affectionate but anxious movie, couched within a flashback sequence of questionable veracity, Bujalski’s camera enacts a spontaneous, empathic gesture of courtship. Running out of options, with few visual moves left to make, it crosses the table to assume the computer monitor’s point of view, staring out at a mystified human interlocutor. Like everything else we’ve just seen onscreen, it’s either a playful what-if or a full-scale epistemological break. Only the camera knows what it knows.


"Almost everything worth paying attention to these days, and just as much that’s worth ignoring, represents the collaboration between a human being and a computer."

LARB Contributor

Akiva Gottlieb writes about film for The Nation, and is a PhD candidate in English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan.


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