“Mumblecore” is one of the stranger subgenres/movements that I’ve come across, although there are many precedent movements that similarly aimed for minimalist production and storytelling values. Andrew Bujalski, the internet tells me, is a founder and leader of this movement, which shoots for naturalist stories and nonprofessional actors. I’ll admit that his most recent film, Computer Chess, confused me with its pacing and tone, especially since I’ve apparently only seen one other movie on the “Mumblecore” Wikipedia page (Stranger than Paradise). But the simplicity allows for an intriguing depiction of a subject I’ve never seen covered in a film, and the result is something that resonated with me far more than I anticipated.
Computer Chess (2013)
Plot: In the early 1980s, several programmers try out their chess-playing programs, both in head-to-head computer matches and computer vs. human ones.
That’s…basically it. The premise sets up a lot of breathing room for tangents, with scenes jumping from character to character, sometimes in pursuit of story advancement, and sometimes just to hang out with odd people. One minute, we’re watching a programmer melt down when his computer spits out a poor move in a game, and the next we see a pseudo-religious group sticking their hands in warm bread for spiritual release.
The director is not working haphazardly though, as the randomness is controlled and the contrasts, important. Despite the story taking place over thirty years ago, the questions of how technology interacts with, replaces, and competes against humanity are certainly relevant—hell, one of the year’s best movies, Her, tackles these exact issues, albeit in an entirely different way. And for all of Computer Chess‘s seeming weirdness and lack of direction, there is still an interesting and heartfelt engagement of those issues similar to Her.
The central question appears to be what separates computers and humans, especially since the impetus for the conference in the plot is to see whether or not technology will ever surpass people in the game of chess. For instance, there is a computer that—the programmer theorizes—only wants to play humans, because it apparently fails on purpose when playing other computers. Meanwhile, the only scene that takes place outside involves a filmmaker chastising his cameraman for shooting in the sun, claiming they’ll only shoot inside from that point on.
There is also a clever contrast between two scenes that portray failed communication: in the first, a programmer cannot understand why the computer makes terrible decisions in terms of moving pieces; in the second, two people attempt to discuss different viewpoints of programming’s relationship to militarism, but they interrupt each other, get interrupted, and fail to interact effectively. The difference in communicative failures is arbitrary, and in many ways the computer’s bizarre failure to make the right move invites the most intrigue and empathy.
Moreover, the breakdowns in communication occur between not only the programmers and their machines, but those programmers and humans outside of their social circle. For instance, there is a pseudo-religious therapy group that finds alleviation in bizarre methods like the hands-in-bread thing that I mentioned earlier. No one from the chess conference can understand them, certainly no more than they can understand their machines.
There is also a funny scene where someone documenting the conference notes that a woman is attending this year. “We have a lady that is competing,” he says, “way in the back corner.” The robotic comments and occasional lack of emotion seem more central to the programmers than the computers, which are in many ways as flawed and human as anyone in the movie.
These are just a couple examples of what is a well-explored and pensive contemplation regarding the ever-popular theme of technology’s relationship to humanity. Still, even that is simply a part of a movie that utilizes simplicity to provide ample space for numerous threads of thought. While the simplicity of Mumblecore can be off-putting, it’s also refreshing in how…unrestrained it all is. The acting, camerawork, dialogue, and everything else are so free, so unpretentious and nonjudgemental, that movies like Computer Chess feel like a nice, cool glass of water after several glasses of various dark, red wines. Computer Chess is the antidote to an overabundance of loud movies, not only because it’s quiet but because, like a good essay, it explores without restraint. If you’re looking for a reprieve from heavy movies, Computer Chess might be what you seek.