Just like Pablo Larraín's No - but conceived independently of each other - Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess makes clever use of obsolete visual technologies, having been shot entirely in 1960s-vintage, now-discontinued video cameras, all the better to give its tale of pioneer computer geeks that elusive period feel. That is actually the key that makes the ultra-independent American director's fourth feature his most amiable and accessible, even though in essence Computer Chess has the same loose ensemble structure of his previous works Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax.

     In the new film, Mr. Bujalski moves from the no-budget, loosely improvised tales of young aimless artistic people looking for their place in the world to a no-budget, loosely-improvised tale of young aimless IT people looking for their place in the world 30 years ago, thus evading (ever so slightly) the rules of the mumblecore movement he has been affiliated with. Yet, the truth is that young-adult awkwardness is universal and timeless. Set in the early days of personal computers, in a cheap motel where a tournament of computer chess is taking place, Computer Chess traces the fluid flow of these science nerds (granted, not all of them young adults) as socially awkward as any nerd (before or since) struggling to interact and build meaningful relationships, suggesting that even though they're developing groundbreaking technology (used mainly to play chess games) the human factor remains difficult to attain.

     That dysfunction is underscored by the sweetness with which Mr. Bujalski paints these characters (some of whom, it should be noted, are actually played by real-life technologists), and the offbeat but gentle way in which he plays them against each other: there's a religious cult meeting elsewhere in the hotel, a disgraced technologist attempting to gatecrash the competition, and a "conspiracy theory" floating around regarding one of the teams. Ultimately, though, Computer Chess is as much a study of the awkward male psyche as much as any of the director's previous films, only leavened of its habitual moroseness by the aesthetics surrounding it - and, surprisingly, that aesthetic change is all that was needed.

Cast: Wiley Wiggins, Patrick Riester, Jim Lewis, Freddy Martinez, Myles Paige, Gerald Peary, James Curry, Bob Sabiston, Robin Schwartz, Chris Doubek
Director, writer and editor: Andrew Bujalski
Cinematography: Matthias Grunsky  (black & white)
Designer: Michael Bricker
Costumes: Colin Wilkes
Producers: Houston King, Alex Lipschultz (Computer Chess Films)
USA, 2013, 91 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 Forum official screening, UCI Kinowelt Colosseum 1 (Berlin), February 13th 2013


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