Film and TV

The really weird Computer Chess is also very funny and smart

So far the funniest, headiest, most playfully eccentric American indie of the year, Andrew Bujalski's perceptive avant-garde comedy Computer Chess set circa 1980 with an Anytown, America's worth of terrible moustaches and embarrassing pants — teases out unanswered existential and behavioral questions about mankind's curious obsession with artificial intelligence and automation. (Shouldn't some interactions remain analog, including games of chess?)

Fitting to the period, cinematographer Matthias Grunsky offers the cruddiest security-grade monochrome image conceivable from a vintage video tube camera that predates the PortaPak. That's less an art-house stunt than an evocative, nostalgic patina. Remember when the future seemed a casual climb to utopian invention, not the doomsday vortex we now race toward? "This is a very odd, weird, strange, idiosyncratic game. I don't know how many ways I can say it," stammers arrogant chess wizard Pat Henderson (Gerald Peary), hosting a weekend tournament at a nondescript hotel.

Also read: Our interview with director Andrew Bujalski

Among the influx of tucked-in, white-collared conquista-dorks ready to affably battle each other — or rather, each other's not-yet-portable mainframes — one winner's software will face off against Henderson on the final day. There is no third-act "Who will win?" underdog tension, because this isn't a sports movie. If anything, the bigger fight is "Who will get the conference room?," between the gamers and a couples-therapy seminar led by an African guru.

The improvisational feel might read as haphazard to some, but Bujalski's script and seemingly paradoxical stylizations are actually quite formal (the deliriously clipped editing and intermittently out-of-sync dialogue are calculated decisions, not human errors — get it?). This is a very odd, weird, strange, idiosyncratic film. I don't know how many ways I can say it.

Also read: Our interview with director Andrew Bujalski

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Aaron Hillis is a regular film contributor at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.