I’m no psychic. But the minute I saw Andrew Bujalski’s sweet/geeky/playful/pointyheaded drama Computer Chess, I knew it would win the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, a cool-brainiac award from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that comes with a $20,000 huzzah for an independent film project that, in the words of the foundation press release, explores “science and technology themes or that depict scientists, engineers, and mathematicians in engaging and innovative ways.” I knew Computer Chess would win, first because most other films at Sundance this year explore relationships and sexytime themes rather than stories featuring scientists. And second because, in the guise of messing around with the limitations of PortaPak video aesthetics and technology circa 1980, Bujalski (the mumblecore pioneer who made Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation, and Beeswax) gets at something deep and true about the nature of scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and the young nerds of every generation who go on to invent the stuff that changes the lives of all the rest of us.
Shot mostly in the washed-out black-and-white of a thousand amateur olden-day videos and set in a perfectly, painfully ugly hotel that’s nowhere and everywhere in America, the movie “documents” an annual (fictional) tournament based on the challenge of devising a computer program that can stand up against a human chess master. (Full disclosure and all that, the chess master/MC is played, with real thespian je ne sais quoi, by colleague-pal and fellow film critic, Gerald Peary.) The competitors are as fashion-challenged and socially dweeby as one might remember from one’s own school memories of chess clubs and A/V squads. At first, it’s easy for the audience to settle in for a post-ironic air-quote “laugh” as these earnest, irony-free dorks fiddle with their clunky paleo-computers.
But the movie soon morphs in ways no computer (or filmmakers’ lab) could possible program. Each dork (and one girl dorkette), who at first seemed so much like every other, becomes a distinct personality – a distinct person, really. Encounters ensue, and some conflicts, and a few weed- and drug-induced absurdities. And also, well, a New Age encounter group for couples appears to have booked the same hotel meeting space.
In the past, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has handed out this award (scientifically calculated to fill struggling filmmakers with unquantifiable gratitude for the moolah) to Another Earth, Robot and Frank, Grizzly Man, and Primer — titles that turned out to be some of the films I’ve liked best coming out of Sundance, from filmmakers who prefer to eat at the Smart Kids’ Lunch Table. Bujalski makes a great addition in the cafeteria.