Saturday, November 09, 2013

Computer Chess

Computer Chess directed by Andrew Bujalski is a film for chess addicts, computer nerds, film buffs alike - and lovers of sly humour. There are gags for all. When I saw it as part of the BFI London Film Festival back in October you could tell who was who in the audience from when they laughed; and that only the few chessers saw the joke when a dumb 1980s chess computer chased a few pointless checks rather than win a queen for nothing.

For that is the unlikely subject matter of this film: the goings-on at a computer vs. computer chess tournament in the States in the early 80s. And it's an improbable triumph: a chess film that will entertain everyone - because it's the programmers, not the programmes, who steal the show. Pinch yourself to reality check if they (and some of the others) are real people. You might be surprised.

At the BFI we got a look behind the scenes in a post-screening Q&A with the film's producer, and I can risk sharing some of his disclosures here, without spoiling things. It is low budget and looks like it is put together from film shot way back when Sony hand-held video cameras (recording to tape) were state of the art, computers ran on cogs and rubber bands, and they wore large specs like Brains in Thunderbirds.

It looks like it because it was indeed shot using those now well-nigh extinct cameras - in the trailer above you'll see one of them used as a prop  - and it's a measure of the director's determination to capture the authentic look, and period feel, that he spent 3 years tracking some down. And a bit longer to dig out of retirement a Sony engineer who still knew how they worked. The computer chess has a genuine antique quality about it, too, as they checked it all out with some of the chess computer geeks who were actually doing it 30 years ago.

A cringe-making encounter-group, booked in to the same hotel, repeatedly collides with the chess fraternity to toe-curlingly comic effect. Actually not quite a fraternity: there is one woman among them, cue nicely-observed period-style subliminal sexism. She provides some unlikely will-they-won't-they-not-if-he-doesn't-even-notice almost romantic interest. The touchy-feely, psychobabbly, rebirthing by the groupies is enough to make you primally scream.

There were one or two false notes, it seemed to me. But as the producer said: it's a film where there's space for each viewer to make their own interpretation of the "story". It's out in selected cinemas from 22 November, and will be available on iTunes. Chess-themed films don't come along that often and even though it trades on some well-worn, if self-inflicted, stereotypes this one is worth a look.

See also this for background on the Director.
Chess Goes To The Movies Index

1 comment:

Adam FF said...

I saw this with Martin and enjoyed it just as much. Unlike most films in which chess is played, the positions on the boards actually seemed plausible to me.