Past Imperfect

Andrew Bujalski, Computer Chess, 2013, analog NTSC video, black-and-white, sound, 92 minutes.

ANDREW BUJALSKI’S COMPUTER CHESS (2013) is set in an undistinguished hotel that gradually is revealed to be haunted by the problem of “the ghost in the machine.” The year is roughly 1980, and teams of unkempt, bespectacled computer science pioneers with MIT and Stanford pedigrees are competing in an annual chess tournament which pits program against program, with the winner then matched against a putatively human expert, the tournament’s organizer (played by film critic Gerald Peary, one of Bujalski’s first supporters).

Although no one would have predicted it, this most oddball of Bujalski’s four features is his biggest success—critically and commercially, playing for weeks in theaters and now available for downloads and on DVD from Kino-Lorber with such invaluable extras as “4 Computer Chess reference games” and a “1969 Sony-AVC-3260 video camera tutorial.” A fetishist of nearly extinct moving-image technologies, Bujalski shot and edited his first three features—Funny Ha Ha (2002), Mutual Appreciation (2006), and Beeswax (2009)—on 16 mm. He one-ups himself here by choosing a black-and-white analog video camera: the clunky Sony AVC-3260, which probably would have been used to document a weekend where the future of Basic was hotly debated and attendees lugged their twenty-pound PCs and funnel-like terminals from their cars to their rooms to the convention conference room, and back again.

Some of the humor in Computer Chess derives from our astonishment that, just thirty years ago, such hardware dinosaurs and maddeningly slow software programs were the cutting edge, and our consequent recognition of how ridiculously primitive our iPhones and Google Glasses will appear three decades hence. Bujalski doubles down on the joke with the AVC-3260. He fell in love with the look of early black-and-white video when he saw excerpts from William Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton in Michael Almereyda’s documentary on the photographer, William Eggleston in the Real World (2005). In 1973, Eggleston had a brief flirtation with video and employed a Sony Porta-Pak rig, which he souped up with high-grade lenses, to shoot a documentary of the usual suspects who appeared in his photographs. Bujalski has cited Alan and Susan Raymond’s “video-vérité” documentary The Police Tapes (1977) as another documentary that interested him in the possibilities of early video technology. Had he investigated further, he might have found other genres of long-form black-and-white analog video pieces: Vito Acconci’s The Red Tapes (1976) and Ed Bowes’s Romance (1976) remain notable forays into novelistic video narratives.

Bujalski and his ingenious cinematographer Matthias Grunsky performed their own modifications on the AVC-3260, converting its analog signal to digital as they were recording. Since the conversion was not exactly seamless, the postproduction was neither cheap nor easy. Still, the tube camera is what gives Computer Chess its future/past sci-fi tone, just as Chris Marker’s use of black-and-white stills does in La Jetée (1963). The movie seems like something retrieved from a thirty-five-year-old time capsule, which, in terms of the speed of technological change over that period, might have been light years away.

The first scenes look as if they are merely an inexperienced videographer’s documentation of the weekend, replete with nerdy participants spouting a combination of practical and theoretical artificial intelligence jargon combined with stuff that I’ve been told by software programmers makes no sense at all. It serves as an introduction to the characters, including Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester), the young man who gradually becomes the movie’s focus. Bujalski has an amazing ability to discover nonprofessional actors who are able to live quietly but fully in front of the camera, and Riester is as vulnerable, curious, and willful as Kate Dollenmayer, who played the unforgettable heroine of Funny Ha Ha.

No sooner has the camera left the conference room than it discovers that another meeting is being held in the hotel, this one as touchy-feely as the computer chess conference is cerebral. In the funniest and most disturbing scene of the movie, a middle-aged couple from this Esalen-like group attempts to seduce Peter. “Think of us as your parents,” says the husband as he suggestively unbuttons the blouse that barely conceals his wife’s terrifyingly ample bosom. Patrick flees into the hotel corridors where spectral cats roam, their slightly disembodied forms the result of the analog camera’s propensity to “ghost”—to leave trails of light, like the supposed ectoplasm in nineteenth-century “spirit” photographs.

As the movie syncs more closely with Peter’s subjectivity, Computer Chess becomes more dreamlike, fully exploiting the AV-3260’s gauzy, smeared, ephemeral images. Peter’s devotion to computer chess is sabotaged by his sexual anxieties and his projection of his unconscious fears and desires onto his surroundings. The hotel becomes haunted by apparitions from Stanley Kubrick films: a room filled with those ghostly cats; ominous hallways out of The Shining, which coincidentally or not was released in the same year as the film is set; and a computer which, like Hal in 2001, begins to function on its own, posing questions about mind and soul, i.e., about “the ghost in the machine.”

That endlessly suggestive metaphor was coined by philosopher Gilbert Ryle in his analysis of how the Cartesian mind/body duality, with its profound categorical error, haunts philosophy. Techies use it when they cannot come up with any obvious reason for hardware or software malfunctions. In evoking the ambition and anxiety around artificial intelligence—even in such a convoluted manifestation as computer chess—Bujalski, in a glorious act of association, collapses AI, the mind/body split, and the ghosting effect of black-and-white video. As a final fillip, he places Peter’s sexual initiation in the hands of a lovely robot, like the one created by Thomas Edison even as he was inventing motion pictures, and which Annette Michelson, in a brilliant essay in October (issue 29, summer 1984) dubbed “the Eve of the future.” Is that a motherboard Peter sees inside her head?

Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess will screen as part of the 2014 Whitney Biennial March 7–9.