I don’t find computer chess particularly interesting. Nor do I find documentaries that aren’t documentaries about people pretending to be computer programmers very interesting either. And this seems to be the biggest problem with Andrew Bujalski’s (Funny Ha Ha) latest mumblecore (though it isn’t really) offering: (though I’ll bet it looked great on paper) it’s all just a little…well…boring.
Set over a weekend conference for computer programmers, during which dull men with intellects as large as their 1980s computers and zero personality vie for space in a cramped hotel and lovingly pore over their chess-playing mechanical friends (none of the men seem to have any real ones), moving plastic chess pieces on giant boards in accordance with dot-matrix printouts and little white numbers on tiny monochrome screens, all we can do is sit and watch with the kind of detached disinterest it seems Bujalski’s curse to have created.
Yes, the film is lovingly made, shot on period cameras and with a near fanatical attention to detail (hell, there’s even a woman there) giving the film an ancient 4:3, grainy look that makes it look like an old This Is The Future episode. Yes, there is a novelty value to thinking for a few brief minutes that we are there with the programmers, holding the secret to artificial intelligence in our hands. Yes, there are a few moments of humour (very niche humour, though) that make us forget what we are watching. And yes, the film will find a rabid festival following of people who (much like the people in the film would) will spend the 80-odd minutes trying to identify the different computers and printers and cameras and trying to count the spectacles and measure the collars. But, no, I was not one of them.
The film basically follows groups of programmers during seminars and the chess matches themselves, filmed in the kind of verite style that has already given over to cliche, with members of the conference talking to camera and offering views on computers, the future and chess. After a while I struggled to differentiate between the men sitting on fold-out chairs staring at computer screens and the computer screens themselves. With one exception: Michael Papageorge, played by Myles Paige, is the only character in the film not made out of binary, and though well played, he seems only there to counter-balance the others and all we can do is watch him wander the hotel, looking for a place to sleep as his room has not been booked. On his travels he meets up with self-help hippies and their guru and some cats. It takes our mind off the chess for a while.
Having said all of that, though, it would be easy to think that this film is not any good, which is not strictly true. It is well made, and though the conceit of the style and method weakens as the film goes on, it is very apt for a film like this; it certainly looks the business. The actors (?) are all excellent, especially Robin Scwartz as Shelley, the token woman, and Paige is good as Papageorge (being the “alternative” face of geekery) and the supporting cast all conjure up a time and a place. And despite one or two odd moments (a sonogram on a computer screen being particularly strange), the film works very well at what it does.
But what it does is dull. I suspect there is something important being said here, about history and technology and human relationships and intelligence and isolation, but I don’t quite know what it is. And I imagine there will be many who love this film, much like King Of Kong (which is way better), and that it will be a sleeper hit with a small yet fanatical following. But I just don’t care.
Director: Andrew Bujalski
Cast: Gerald Peary, Myles Paige, Robin Scwartz
Running time: 83min