In Andrew Bujalski's admirable, vaunted 2002 debut, Funny Ha Ha, the microbudget auteur and occasional actor's nervous temp, Mitchell, ineffectually attempts to seduce an aloof young lady over a bedroom chess match. As if pawns themselves, dependably obeying the established rules of conduct, the characters in Bujalski's films are consistently — um, yeah, like — passive, awkward, and inarticulate. Yet that chessboard is a coincidence, not foreshadowing, as neither that first film nor Bujalski's equally subdued, shaggily droll 16mm quasi-vérité ambles through post-collegiate ennui (2005's Mutual Appreciation and 2009's Beeswax, both slack in ambition but still baby steps forward) could have anticipated the profound leap of Computer Chess.
So far the funniest, headiest, most playfully eccentric American indie of the year, Bujalski's perceptive avant-garde comedy — set circa 1980 with an Anytown, America's worth of terrible mustaches and embarrassing pants — teases out unanswered existential and behavioral questions about mankind's curious obsession with artificial intelligence and automation. (Shouldn't some interactions remain analog, including games of chess?)
Fitting to the period, Bujalski's regular cinematographer, Matthias Grunsky, offers the cruddiest, security-grade monochrome image conceivable from a vintage video tube-camera that predates the PortaPak. A fascinating but hardly beautiful look, this low-contrast gray smeariness is prone to artifacting, light leaks, and tracking glitches (though sometimes cheated in post-production as amusing, almost sentient "special defects"). That's less an arthouse stunt than a legitimately evocative, nostalgic patina. Remember when the future seemed a casual climb to utopian invention, not the doomsday vortex we now race toward?
"This is a very odd, weird, strange, idiosyncratic game. I don't know how many ways I can say it," stammers arrogant chess wizard Pat Henderson (the onscreen egghead that film critic Gerald Peary was born to play), hosting a weekend tournament at a nondescript hotel convention. Among the influx of tucked-in, white-collared conquista-dorks ready to affably battle each other — or rather, each other's not-yet-portable mainframes — one winner's software will face off against Henderson on the final day.
Ostensibly through the lens of a roving cameraman seen documenting the event, we meet psychologist and programmer Martin Beuscher (Dazed and Confused's Wiley Wiggins) who can't fathom why his state-of-the-art upgrade plays counterintuitively against non-human opponents; his skittish junior partner, Peter Bishton (Austin-based editor Patrick Riester), who never quite finds his romantic footing with the competition's much-ballyhooed "first-ever woman," Shelly Flintic (Robin Schwartz, another Austin-based editor); and a portly British techie named Les Carbray (real-life software developer James Curry) who prepares at the bar: "A man on three scotches could program his way out of any problem in the world." Even the nerds who are essentially featured extras add distinctive nuttiness to the ensemble, like the programmer named Luke whose computer is also called Luke, as is his software.
The scene-stealing wild card, however, is freeloading freelancer Michael Papageorge (Funny Ha Ha's Myles Paige), a blowhard entrant who will disrupt just about everyone else throughout the weekend while looking for an place to lay his head each night. Wandering, sometimes dancing, through the drab halls — along with a multiplying population of stray cats that improbably suggests the rise of the Internet itself — Papageorge's interpersonal skirmishes with his rivals have higher dramatic stakes than the tournament itself. He deals with game organizers, some philosophical pot-smokers, and a cryptically appearing prostitute who must have escaped from David Lynch's oeuvre.
There is no third-act "who will win?" underdog tension, because this isn't a sports movie. If anything, the bigger fight is "who will get the conference room?" between the gamers and a couples-therapy seminar led by an African guru whose New Age registrants re-enact births and molest loaves of bread as if Theatre of the Absurd performers. The film's keystone, in turn, is a disconcertingly waggish scene in which two of the therapy-seekers (veteran Austin actors Chris Doubek and Cyndi Williams) bring back to their room young Peter, shyly unaware that he's about to be uncomfortably propositioned; the logical and the spiritual have locked horns.
Such minor-key moments are when Computer Chess reveals its markings as a Bujalski film, when the friction between characters is delicately charged by miscommunication and graceless responses, often well-intentioned. The improvisational feel might read as haphazard to some, but Bujalski's script and seemingly paradoxical stylizations are actually quite formal (the deliriously clipped editing and intermittently out-of-sync dialogue are calculated decisions, not human errors — get it?), including a deceptively not-so-random blip of color that subverts the sudden-vibrancy effect of a Wings of Desire or Schindler's List by showing an even simpler past than the one we've already been watching with contemporary eyes. In past interviews, Bujalski has labeled himself a contrarian, which seems valid to say of a dramatist who finds catharsis in what's not being said, plainness in obtuse tech jargon, and tender optimism in the historical run-up to technophobic fears. This is a very odd, weird, strange, idiosyncratic film. I don't know how many ways I can say it.