Comprised of raw black and white images captured by an ancient Sony video camera, Computer Chess is pretty much what you would expect to see if you were an observer at a convention-come-tournament such as the one depicted in the film. During a boring panel discussion that opens the film, which has veteran computer chess programmers chat about the recent advances in technology and what went wrong at last year's event, we can see some of their audience (also programmers, awkwardly assembled at a hotel for the weekend) drifting off. For a short while, I did too. The heavy use of jargon meant that I had little idea what they were talking about and I hoped it got more interesting…and fast. It does, trust me, but this is one of the fascinating things about this film and the reason it is unique. It fooled me.
I believed I was watching actual footage – buried deep in some archive and forgotten about, only to be resurrected and collaborated together - of a group of bespectacled tech nerds with poor social skills and bad haircuts interact and philosophize about the future of Artificial Intelligence and try to justify their personal obsessions not with chess, necessarily, but their desire to perfect their programs. But then I realized that it was all a recreation – a very authentic rendering of an early 80s era where a brash chess wiz remains adamant that a computer program was incapable of beating him, arranging the country's best to get together and try. Perhaps past embarrassments will be eradicated. Who knows what will happen?
If they were actual academics, and if they had been directed to act out the varying dramas that take place it makes sense that their acting be deemed terrible. But then I began to understand that the nuances of the performances - the loneliness, shyness, and despair, the duelling egos and falsely imposed self-importance – was the work of some talented individuals, and from my understanding a lot of the scenes were only loosely scripted and left to the cast to naturally interact.
Mumblecore writer/director Andrew Bukalski has made a strange film that adopts the guise of a documentary but probes into the wacky minds involved in the groundwork for the technology that shapes how man and machine interact today. The mundane drama of watching these guys push around their cumbersome computers, purposefully punch in their coordinates to complement their action-packed (and simultaneously commentated) matches and stay up all night tinkering with their inventions is more fascinating than you’d expect.
While the central story is the progression through the rounds of the tournament there are strange subplots also taking place in the halls and rooms of the hotel; these surreal tangents that are often very funny.
On the downside Computer Chess does feel long and the choice pacing is squirm inducing at times. Also, considering the cameras used, it is often trying on the eyes. The character snapshots are thrown together without much method and some of the running gags do begin to wear out their welcome.
Computer Chess is an oddball work of artistic merit with a mix of raw recreation/fiction and nerd-weird aplenty, this might be the strangest film you see at this year’s Sydney Film festival.
[rating=3] and a half
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22