Tuesday, September 3, 2013
A primitivist techno-fable set at an early 1980s computer chess tournament, Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess is a devious study of loneliness in the cybernetic era. Strand a man on an island and he’ll find a soulmate in his volleyball; lock a programmer in a room with a computer and he’ll see a sentient machine with malice flickering behind its green CRT eyes. Given enough time and isolation, a person could anthropomorphize the air itself. All of which lends an unsettling aura of doubt to the revelation that Caltech programmer Peter may have stumbled upon genuine artificial intelligence in a computer that kind of sucks at chess. With his hunched shoulders and startled eyes, the young man seems to cringe his way through the world. When a pair of middle-aged swingers staying at the same hotel as the tournament try to seduce him into a threeway, the terrified youth flees the room before he can be afflicted by anything resembling human contact. Later, talking a female colleague—whom he clearly has a helpless, chaste crush on—Peter’s references to chess take on a repressed erotic tinge. “Did two bodies collide and one disappear?” he asks. Clearly, this is a man who would write love poetry in Boolean logic.
But Bujalski is interested in more than mere sniggering at the sex lives of computer nerds, however much fun that may be (and it kind of is, sad to say). Using a degraded video aesthetic, the director has created a film that seems to dissolve alongside the sanity of its own characters. One tournament contestant, the prickly Papageorge, ends the film trapped in a loop like a faulty piece of programming. Another imagines the competitors moving around the room like chess pieces on a grid. The madness culminates in one final deranged vision: a prostitute peeling away a chunk of her skull to reveal the blinking circuitry beneath. Compare this to Richard Brautigan—another Caltech poet, like Peter—who once wrote of a faux-paradise where technology and nature mingled in cybernetic forests and meadows (home on the range, where the deer and the androids play). For Brautigan, the rise of the computer world would push humanity back towards its stinking, root animality, reducing men and women to little more than pets beneath the benevolent watch of these “machines of loving grace.” Rather than the poet’s mock-innocent techno-utopia, Bujalski offers a more profane union, with man acting like machine and machine acting like man. Damaged loners living life through a screen, these programmers steadily lose their sense of where humanity ends and technology begins. Watch the world through a camera long enough and you might begin to think it was part of your eye too.