The default stance of the movies towards artificial intelligence, from HAL 9000 to Haley Joel Osment as robo-Pinocchio, is somewhere between mild unease and shrieking terror. So it's not surprising that there's plenty of paranoia hanging over the heads of the A.I. programmers in Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess (particularly when you consider all the joints they keep passing around). But in this terrific period comedy, about competitors in a computer-v-computer chess tournament, the anxieties go hand-in-hand with an intoxicating sense of possibility. This is a movie about how exhilarating it can be at a heady new intellectual frontier — at least if the experience doesn't drive you insane first.
It's 1980 at a generic hotel in Anywhere, USA, where teams of programmers have gathered in a windowless conference room to pit their chess-playing programs against each other, fighting for bragging rights and, more importantly, the chance to compete against a human grandmaster. The contestants represent a lovingly detailed cross-section of nerd-dom — there's a quietly obsessive grad student (Patrick Riester), a chubby company man in a moptop (James Curry), the annual competition's first ever female contestant Shelly (Robin Schwartz), and an outspoken "independent programmer" Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige), who has a penchant for psychedelics and sleazy come-ons.
At first, the mode of the film is affectionate mockumentary — shot on boxy vintage video-cameras, the film is in the fuzzy black-and-white of an unearthed instructional video. The geeks squabble and puff themselves up with amounts of nerd machismo inversely proportional to the importance of the contest for anyone outside their circle. They mingle awkwardly with members of the hotel's other convention — a thoroughly unscientific New Age couples seminar, focused on activities like sensual dough-kneading and acting out your own birth. And they flirt, sort of — for example, Papageorge, having lost his hotel reservation, asks if he can spend the night in Shelly's room ("I bet that you and I are the only ones here who understand that programming even has a feminine side"), though it's not entirely clear if he's more interested in her or in the computer code stored in her room.
But things soon get a lot weirder than your garden-variety social anxiety. The computers start acting more and more like humans. (The defending champion A.I. program seems to be intentionally losing its matches — except when it's playing a real person.) And the humans seem to be encountering more and more glitches and infinite loops in their own lives — strange midnight dialogues with their computer terminals, ominous subliminal flashes on their monitor screens, and a whole lot of cats inexplicably wandering the hotel halls.
At first, it may have seemed like the plight of the programmers here was that they were so wrapped up in their hobby that they were avoiding the work of dealing with the messy, chaotic humanity around them. But as Bujalski dives deep into his characters' psyches, it becomes clear that they aren't trying to avoid humanity so much as transcend it. Upon hearing that grad student Peter spends all his time pursuing checkmating algorithms instead of more societally acceptable pleasures, a middle-aged woman from the couples' seminar asks him "Don't you see how limited that is?" He replies that the number of possible chess games is nearly 10 to the 130th power, which with current computer methods would take longer than humanity's lifespan to fully compute and solve — as square as a chessboard may seem, his obsession is nothing less than getting a firm grasp on the infinite.
And as the film heads towards its deeply trippy conclusion, it suggests that chess might only be the beginning — what if love, or sex, or even the human condition itself are all just algorithms that we haven't quite cracked yet? For our characters in 1980, Deep Blue and further breakthroughs were many years away, and the promise of their quest was hopelessly, maddeningly hampered by their own human failings. (Fittingly enough, one computer meets a disastrous end, thanks to the most mundane of human errors.) But the tantalizing — and haunting — idea that Computer Chess raises is that the line between the things that are uniquely the province of the human spirit and those that are digitally reproducible is a blurry one indeed. It's a concept as heady as anything in Blade Runner – and the audacious thing is that it's played for laughs.
Dir. by Andrew Bujalski, Sept. 13-19, Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006, realartways.org