Computer Chess – Andrew Bujalski reminds us that Computers used to be exciting. (Sydney FF Film Review)

Computer Chess is currently playing at the Sydney Film Festival.  You can grab your tickets here.

Surely one of the most intensely disappointing aspects of the digital age is capitalism’s ability to domesticate it. It seems quaint now, but when we were first faced with the rapid expansion of computer technology and its mind-boggling abilities that seemed borderless our inevitable fears included dinner party buzz words such as “internet dating” and “artificial intelligence”. There seemed to be nothing as interesting as the question of how quickly the computerised intelligence might be able to take over the human mind.  Countless films, books and music were made in honor of this fear.  Once upon a time the computer was looked on with trepidation.  We talked of “blowing up” our televisions, microwaves and computers if we crossed the wires. The question of a terminator like future where machines – sick of our appalling self-indulgence – would take us over was spoken of in hushed tones. It seemed anything was possible.

What we didn’t expect was Google, Facebook and Amazon.

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It turns out “AI” is as limited by funding as the rest of us. It turns out that content really is king (garbage in / garbage out) and while a program may have the ability to do all it can with what we provide, we have found that AI is as fettered as its makers. It seems laughable to fear government restrictions when Google makes the choices for us about what we find and what is buried, “translates” other languages for us, and offers a television program  when we search “John Locke”. You hope the government will intervene when the most innovate and popular program was set up by a white middle class college boy who initially created it to get back at females who’d rejected him.  Facebook, rather than bringing the world to our door, has extended our private world into the global space so that everything and everyone seem to be an angry frustrated, fractured, bitter, malicious facsimile of ourselves.

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It all started with the domestication of pornography.  In the 80’s and early 90’s, pornography was really interesting, and very subversive. (I am forever grateful to an old tech friend of mine who gave me two treasured discs of 1980’s internet porn – the likes of which cannot be found today)  Of course as soon as the internet became “popular” and “accessible”, pornography became provincial, mainstream and/or illegal. Everything else fell under the pedestrian quality of white capitalism to pour a weird blend of twisted morality and reactionary head’s v’s tails conservatism to the “internet experience” so that now all we get it a gluey ugly self reflection. The initial excitement of what “computers” could or might do is long gone as we wade through an overabundance of information we need even less than we are able to absorb; And this phenomenon is the experience of Big Data itself.  In short, we’ve domesticated it / tamed it and as far as I’m concerned “the government” can control all it wants. I would have burnt at the stake to preserve it in the 90’s.  But I lost what I treasured long ago.

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And so we have the contemporary Gen Y fascination with 1980’s internet culture and the day when anything genuinely COULD happen. Andrew Bujalski, born at the zenith of the transition between Gen X and Gen Y, has built a lovely film summing up the beauty and fascination of the 1980’s internet Geek period. That’s Geek with a capital ‘G.’ Back in the day when geeks really knew their stuff and lived for their knowledge. In other words – before it was trendy to be a geek. This film is a beautiful piece made up as an ode to the nostalgia itself, with plenty of early 80’s computer fetish imagery and terminology to give the authentic feel. Bujalski, crowned the king of mumblecore is the man to make this sort of film, and certainly when you see him interviewed about Computer Chess, it comes as no surprise that he’s been dreaming about making the film as a kind of antidote to any selling-out he has had to do in his life over the past decade. This is the ultimate non sellout film, and like everything raw and genuine, it has its own delightful charm.

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Computer Chess is written and directed by Bujalski who shot the entire thing on an authentic video camera. This look, plus the filming in black and white (it will play with the experimentation of color part way through) give Computer Chess  the delightful look of a documentary.  In the press kit for the film he makes the lovely comment regarding his desire to make an existential comedy about the early days of computer chess programs, describing the era as a comedy before he got there. Bujalski writes well (as anyone who has seen Funny Ha Ha would know) and directs well so the lines are genuinely funny and impeccably delivered by the half actor  half genuine computer nerd cast, who are summed up in the rather famous Wiley Wiggins who is recognizable as the star of Dazed and Confused as well as being a genuine computer geek who operates a video game design store. A standout in the cast is the extremely funny and stereotypical Patrick Reister whose deadpan face that almost doesn’t register any emotion throughout the film is the perfect mask we have come to associate with early computer fascinations. An extra delightful touch is the gradual emergence of a comedy of errors as another conference – a herd of 1980’s New Agers – keep bumping horns, space and privates with the computer nerds. While we all remember the cool geekiness of one sect we forget how genuinely daggy the other sect have become over time. Its fun to watch Bujalskis gentle ride through time and see the power  nostalgia has to declare a social triumph out of one fashion and a complete disaster of another.

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Among all of this beauty is the constant thrill Bujalski genuinely conveys, reminding us how much we feared and revered these boxy, space age looking machines. As it turns out, the real fears were that machines might never have the power to take us over, and that we simply aren’t capable of creating something better than ourselves.

But then, god wasn’t either.

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