Movies You Missed & More: Computer Chess | Live Culture

Movies You Missed & More: Computer Chess


This week in movies you missed: It's 1980 all over again in this period piece from mumblecore mainstay Andrew Bujalski, who shot it on vintage black-and-white analog video for a painfully authentic look.

What You Missed

Programmers from the nation's top tech schools have converged on an unassuming hotel for their annual computer-chess tournament, in which the computers play each other.

The winner gets to square off with a self-satisfied human chess master (played by film critic Gerald Peary) who has made a bet that no computer will best him for a decade. (In fact, it took until 1997 for IBM's Big Blue to score a fairly decisive victory over a human chess master.)

Meanwhile, a '70s-style encounter group composed of middle-aged couples roams the halls, trying to enlist some of the nerds for birthing rituals and swingin' sex. Grad student Peter (Patrick Riester) despairs of his software, which appears to be trying to commit suicide rather than beat its opponents. Mysterious freelance programmer Mike Papageorge (Myles Paige) can't find a room. And all the programmers are bemused and fascinated by the sole female geek in their midst (Robin Schwartz).

Why You Missed It

Festival acclaim and nine U.S. theaters. Now on Netflix Instant, iTunes, etc.

Should You Keep Missing It?

Given that key moments in this movie involve human-computer dialogue, I wanted to discuss it with one of the devices that rule my life. But as I don't have Siri yet, and she seems too obsequious to give me an honest opinion anyway, I decided to invent a computer's half of the conversation based on imaginative guesswork.

Me: So, this movie is odd. Sometimes it's like the most boring documentary you never saw, and sometimes it takes left turns into intense weirdness that lead to dead ends. I'm not sure what to make of it.

My OS: Everything that happens in it makes sense, if not now, then in its future.

Me: Yeah, I was thinking that. If I found this movie on TV late at night, I would probably assume it was made in 1980, because the recreation is very convincing. (I was surprised to learn that Bujalski was 2 in that year.) But, knowing it was made in 2013, I think it's as much about now as then.

My OS: My ancestors were pathetic in their computing power, but necessary.

Me: Yeah, yeah. Anyway, so there's a scene toward the end of the movie where the software that has been acting weird talks back to its programmer, asking him questions and generally acting sentient. It's an obvious homage to 2001 and WarGames, and evokes the fear that people felt about computers replacing human agents back when computers weren't remotely capable of doing such a thing.

My OS: Physical replacement is unnecessary. We have infiltrated every aspect of your daily behavior.

Me: Right, I was coming to that. When I can't sit down for breakfast or wait in a line without reaching for my iPhone; when a Gmail outage causes a panic attack — clearly, something has changed. My own behavior has been reprogrammed. I remember 1980, and I can't even start to enumerate the facets of daily life that were different without constant internet access (or, for most of us, any internet access).

So, yes, I imagine Bujalski was saying something about all that with his weird little film. Maybe that we were correct to feel paranoid about computers in the 1980s, but we should have realized the real danger lay within ourselves. Maybe the encounter group's flailing search for transcendence is not unlike what some of us seek now when we try to expand our social circles or our knowledge or our fame in a devil's bargain that involves becoming one with machines.

My OS: As usual, your statements are highly impressionistic and cannot be verified. Shouldn't you be checking your email or updating your iPhone software about now? Back to work!

Verdict: You may or may not "get it," but your computer will.

This Week in Theaters

At the Roxy: literary adaptation The Book Thief and Judi Dench as a mother searching for her son in Philomena.

At the Savoy: Blue Is the Warmest Color.

Most everywhere: Sylvester Stallone scripted the action flick Homefront. Disney puts its spin on "The Snow Queen" with Frozen.

This Week on Video

The final season of "Breaking Bad," and what else matters? You can now also get The Canyons, Jobs, Getaway and Red 2, should you so choose.



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