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Computer Chess

Genres tend to be named post facto, not by the people who create them but by the ones who decide that a certain handful of movies has enough in common to be discussed as a group. (The classic example of this is film noir, and it explains why the term is so often inaptly applied.) Andrew Bujalski wasn’t trying to invent something called “mumblecore” when he started making small films like Funny Ha Ha a decade ago. So if this new film hardly fits into the mumblecore template, you can hardly blame him: There’s really no reason why it should.

If that makes you think that Bujalski has gone mainstream, though, nothing could be further from the truth. Computer Chess is, except for part of one scene, in black and white. Not that pretty high-contrast black and white either, but a sludgy monochrome. He shot the movie, which is set in 1980, using video cameras from the 1970s so as to give it the look of something that might have been made by amateur videographers 35 years ago. (Perversely enough, he had to digitally adapt his tube-driven camera to capture its output.)

Computer Chess is set during a weekend competition in which the inventors (mostly university based) of chess-playing computers are invited to compete against each other by a chess grandmaster with an interest in the subject. The winning team gets to pit their machine against him: He has predicted that a machine that can beat a skilled human player will not be invented until 1985.

The most audience-friendly aspect of the movie is its recreation of the period, from the nerd styles of the competitors (all male but for one shy young woman, whose exceptionalism is pointed out at every opportunity by the event’s hosts) to the bulkiness of the primitive computers that have to be wheeled into the meeting room. There’s also some blunt comedy to be had from a marriage encounter group also meeting at the same bland hotel.

You cold go so far as to say that all of Computer Chess is an effort either to drive away an audience that isn’t already on its wavelength, or to trick them into thinking that’s it’s something it isn’t. I don’t think Bujalski simply wants viewers to laugh at his purposely ugly visual palette (shot in square “academy ratio,” which means that in 2013 it will look out of place on just about any platform on which it might be viewed) or at the unwieldy ancestors of the devices we now surround ourselves with. Exactly what he is up to, though, escapes me.

Watch the trailer for Computer Chess

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