Analog Warmth: On Computer Chess

Computer-chess-poster-243x366Akiva Gottlieb in the LA Review of Books:

In the opening moments of his slippery and entirely excellent new movieComputer Chess, a young man points his PortaPak camera up toward the sky, and is quickly interrupted and chastised by a superior: “Don’t ever shoot at the sun!” The scene quickly articulates the film’s fixation with impulses and reprimands, moves and countermoves, but also its willingness to align its exploration of the limits of the human with the limits of the filmable.

Computer Chess is an existential comedy about, among other things, the various surrogates, extensions, and augmentations that promise to intensify the pleasure of being alive. It’s also about a camera. Bujalski’s longtime cinematographer Matthias Grunsky shot Computer Chess in black-and-white with a Sony AVC-3260 video camera, developed in 1969, that uses analog tubes to convert the captured image into electronic signals. (For this reason, a bright light source like the sun can leave a burn mark on the image — a sort of ghostly trace.) The boxy 4:3 aspect ratio resembles a cheap public-access television documentary, though the narrative quickly jettisons any pretense of Direct Cinema realism. Set at an annual gathering of socially maladapted computer programmers in a dingy Austin, Texas motel, circa 1980, the movie finds its characters — and these non-actors do seem foundas much as created — standing at the precipice of the posthuman. The film thus fashions an affective present tense that seems haunted by the future as much as by the past. In a time when even the word “computer” sounds antiquated, this movie wants to know: how would outmoded technology make sense of what we’ve done with it?