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Odd, eccentric, funny ‘Computer Chess’ at DPAC

Kevin Noonan | Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Film director, screenwriter, actor and editor (and 36-year-old) Andrew Bujalski is known in the Indie film community as the “Godfather of Mumblecore,” a genre of film as quirky and unique as one might imagine from the label applied to it. The Boston native’s latest offering, this year’s “Computer Chess,” is an odd yet subtly funny period film that delves into the world of computer programming and chess in the 1980s.

The film, which won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize (celebrating films that focus on science or technology) at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, is shot almost entirely in black and white, roughly edited, uncomfortably acted and confusingly plotted. It inspires comparisons to bad 1980s commercials and soap operas, and all of that might sound like a bad description, but it instead provides the perfect visual style to illustrate the eccentric world of computer chess programmers.

The story takes place over a weekend-long tournament between different programmers, some from universities, some from the private sector and some operating independently, as they use their chess programs to compete against each other. There is some sense of documentary to the plot, and many of the characters speak and act in what in any other film might be called “bad acting” (note above I said “uncomfortable,” not “bad”). But in this film, it gives insight and depth to these men (and one woman) who spend their whole lives writing code for computers to play chess.

The plot is convoluted, with different characters weaving different conspiracy theories about each other throughout, but none of the conspiracies are ever really resolved. The film’s events take place while the Cold War would still have been in full effect, so the fact that a group of computer geniuses are gathered in one place to test out their artificial intelligence programs makes for a lot of interesting theories, no matter how confusing and unlikely.

As mentioned before, the film rests firmly in the “Mumblecore” genre, a genre that director Bujalski helped invent and popularize. Mumblecore films place a heavy focus on naturalism ¾ dialogue and character performances are especially designed to be as natural and realistic as possible. Thus, in a film about computer programmers with a chess obsession, the characters are socially awkward, hard to relate to and generally not the most beautiful people in the world.

For fans of Indie film, or film that’s just a little out there, “Computer Chess” is a perfect opportunity to get a first hand look at a new and developing genre, while also seeing a quirky, eccentric movie about quirky, eccentric people.

The film, which was officially released in theaters on July 17, is only available for screening in a handful of places in North America  ¾  one being the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center (DPAC) this weekend.

“Computer Chess,” which runs for 92 minutes and is unrated, will be shown at Browning Cinema at 6:30 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday. Student tickets are $4 and can be purchased at the DPAC box office or online at performingarts.nd.edu.

Contact Kevin Noonan at knoonan2@nd.edu