Computer Chess: man, machine and mumblecore

Christian Butler

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The Alfred P Sloan Feature Prize is a recent addition to the Sundance Film Festival: $20,000 awarded to the best film that ‘explores science and technology themes or that depicts scientists, engineers and mathematicians in engaging and innovative ways’. This year’s winner was Computer Chess, directed by Andrew Bujalski. The film portrays a weekend man-vs-machine chess tournament for software programmers circa 1980, and features all the naturalistic dialogue and low budget ‘charm’ that have become the hallmarks of Bujalski’s oeuvre.

After making a number of colour films, he has chosen to shoot the film in black and white, apparently because those are the colours of a chessboard – very clever. Shame he can’t use that same earth-shattering artistic instinct to comment on chess, or maybe he did and that’s why the end product is so inconsequential. The exploration of the technology and its implications is a dead-end, too. Other than offering an excuse to throw around some technical terms, the clash between man and machine is nothing but a backdrop to the endless indulgent dialogue.

So much dialogue, and yet the film has nothing to say. It calls itself an ‘existential comedy’, but the only philosophy on display is juvenile and pretentious drivel spoken by stoners and followers of an African guru.

Outrageously, the film seems to know how boring it is. Often a character will be in the middle of an extended monologue, when the camera will suddenly change viewpoint and focus on a new extended monologue in another part of the room. The most truthful moment of the whole picture comes in the opening scene, when a panel of experts go on and on about nothing, just for one of the programmers to declare them all terribly boring. I agree.

Bujalski has been called the godfather of mumblecore, a non-genre that’s the perfect refuge for the filmmaker who lacks talent. The films of mumblecore don’t mind being boring because that’s supposedly what real life is like. By snobbishly deeming plot and character ‘too Hollywood’, the creators are freed from the shackles of having to tell a story, or even to be entertaining.

I can’t think of a good chess-based pun, so let me just state it plainly: Computer Chess is one of the worst films I’ve seen in years.

Christian Butler is a writer and musician based in London.

Computer Chess is screening at the BFI London Film Festival between the 10-13 October. Book here. It will be released in the UK on 22 November.

Watch the trailer

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