En passant


To my shame, I prefer playing chess against a computer than a human opponent. It's less risky. There is no shame in defeat. Cheating is not unethical. Attention to it can be sporadic. You can simply suspend a game or start over if you think you are going to lose. Even when I am beaten soundly by a computer opponent, I don't feel outwitted; instead I take away a feeling that my thinking has not become sufficiently machine-like to compete, which is more reassuring than anything else. I get the gratifying feeling that being lousy at chess is a mark of my indelible humanity. This despite the fact that I am playing computer chess because I can't bear the pressure of human interaction.

Some of the same sorts of ideas about emotional vs. artificial intelligence are at play in Andrew Bujalski's new movie Computer Chess, about a fictional early-1980s tournament of chess programs held in what looks to be a Super 8 motel. Teams of programmers pit their machines against other machines, displacing the confrontation of egos and giving it a collaborative, scientistic veneer, as if the quest for machine intelligence while resolve all the conflicts over intelligence among humans. The competing programmers are represented as "nerds" — with flattened emotional affect, negligible social skills, a general indifference to personal hygiene — whose aggression simmers below the surface and finds only tentative outlet, often through patronizing sexist remarks about the one woman involved with the competition.

Women are pointedly confined to stereotypes in the film  — aside from the shy nerd girl, there is a wife/mother, an earth-mothery swinger, and a prostitute (who may actually be a robot) — as if the entire gender were functioning as a metaphor for forsaken domesticity and emotionality. A key moment in Computer Chess comes when some of the competitors discuss the "feminine side" of programming, as an alternative to the apparently masculine "brute force" approach to chess: Another fantasy about artificial intelligence is that it will resolve antinomies between male and female modes of thinking. A tossed-off line about computer dating being a matter of "computers dating each other" turns out to be not a throwaway joke but the movie's core thematic preoccupation, the characters' utopian dream.

To highlight the programmers' discomfort with emotion, Bujalski puts a relationship-therapy encounter group in the same conference space in the same hotel as the computer-chess tournament, leading to scenes where a programmer is invited into a free-love threesome and another is brought to re-live his passage through the womb in a birth-reenactment ritual. Can these nerds be taught how to feel? Isn't emotionality clumsy and awful anyway, the stock-and-trade of hucksters and manipulators? At the same time, the movie is shot through with scenes about how the computers seem to want to become human, or perhaps are already more soulful and mysterious than the mechanically predictable nerds. One programmer discovers that his machine engages with a chess match and tries only when it senses it is playing another human; a psychology professor has a dark-night-of-the-soul encounter, told in flashback, in which a computer turns the tables on him and confronts him with existential questions. The computer subjectivty is an ineffable mystery, while the capacity of human subjectivity shrinks. People in the movie get caught in loops, evoking the possibility that identity is not a reflection of some intrinsic essence or interiority but instead the product of feedback loops, like the ones that allow robots to seem to walk with purpose.

The guiding protocol of the Turing test, the cogito of AI, hangs over everything in Computer Chess: Are the humans passing as machines, or the machines passing as humans? How much of emotional connection is simply the simulation of it? When machines can feel, won't we be relieved because we will no longer have to?

Computer Chess's formal ambiguities serve these same themes well. The film's not quite a mockumentary, though it's shot on vintage videocameras from the period and videographers appear in the film documenting the event. Sometimes that footage is incorporated into what we see; sometimes it's not. Some scenes are just impossible to assimilate to that documentary setup, as in the TV show The Office; the pretense is just dropped in favor of naturalistically capturing an intimate scene. The result is a mise en scene that is deliberately impossible to sort out, achieving a kind of genial alienation effect. You can't get wrapped up in this film's plot, and you are reminded through the form not to try, to put your attention on other things.

There are comedic moments, of the deadpan sort you find in Hal Hartley's films, but the point is not simply to laugh sympathetically at the people in the movie. It seems also an indictment. It's funny when people screen themselves from emotion with technology, but it is also hostile, aggressively solipsistic, pathetic, and possibly pathological. It's not dehumanizing so much as entrenching a particular human weakness, insecurity. I think I play chess against a computer because when I play another person, win or lose, the empathy can become overwhelming, as we both work out our moves and shape the contours of a configuration of intentions together, but against each other. In chess, the "sacrifices" you make are always of your pieces and never of yourself.

The linchpin thematic conversation in the film occurs when the female programmer describes how she has started to see human interaction in terms of chess moves. This is a cliche of literature about chess; Nabokov's The Luzhin Defense is a long elaboration of it. But it always works on me. The woman describes seeing the people at the tournament from above in chess terms, their interactions easily translated in the prescribed actions of the pieces. Rather than emphasize the calculating consciousness this metaphor typically implies — trying to outwit other people by anticipating their moves and countering them — Bujewski takes it in a different direction. The student the woman is talking to responds by asking whether, when two pieces came together, did one of them disappear. This is a chess-based fantasy not often articulated, that "capture" can be an efficient matter of bloodless elimination rather than a moment of intense collision and potential ongoing entanglement.

Before seeing Computer Chess I didn't know anything about Bujalski except that he had something to do with "mumblecore" movies. As far as I know, I have never seen a mumblecore movie, but it seems the cinematic equivalent of alt lit, or maybe its precursor. This New York Times piece by Dennis Lim from 2007 defines the genre in terms of its low-budget, semipro production values, its use of nonactors to convey Aspie-ish awkwardnesss and ambivalence, and its conviction that sublimity adheres in the mundane. Lim writes, "Mumblecore bespeaks a true 21st-century sensibility, reflective of MySpace-like social networks and the voyeurism and intimacy of YouTube. It also signals a paradigm shift in how movies are made and how they find an audience." Replace MySpace with Tumblr, and that sounds a bit like what clueless commentators like me say about alt lit: It's a community of outsiders testing out new forms of affective bonds in social media through serial production of intimate-and-spontaneous-seeming, highly emotive yet also highly appropriative art.

But mumblecore also looks backward to the indie-rock lo-fi trend of the 1990s epitomized by Lou Barlow, also known for earnest, "raw" emotionality that gains an aura of authenticity through amateur production values.  In music, technology has even developed to the point where crappy production values is much more of a stylistic choice than budget constraint, a kind of deliberate Fauvism; in filmmaking, low production values can still come across as a more "genuine" result of being outside the mainstream. Computer Chess is somewhere between the two poles, using glitches, patches of poorly synched sound, and 1980s cable-access-TV production effects (dot-matrix fonts overlaid clumsily over images; rudimentary split-screens jumped used with seemingly haphazard aplomb) to convey not simply outsiderhood or drug-induced disorientation when the characters in the film take pills, but also subtler shades of emotional alienation. It seems like an effort to emulate the atmosphere of the "New Aesthetic" through appropriated retro means, with humans rather than computers being glitchy.

Critics tend to call both mumblecore and alt lit "narcissistic" and "navel-gazing," as though practitioners weren't reflexive about it. The cultural conditions that foment narcissism is what these works are primarily about — that and the difficulty and fragility of the communities that one can form through technology rather than tradition. Computer Chess invites us to wonder about such communities and their blend of human and machine; the framework of the tournament makes it explicit that the computers might be the "real" protagonists, the real members of the community, and the humans the mere facilitating technology. As artist Jeremy Bailey asks in this interview with Brian Droitcour, "Maybe thinking of the computer as the narcissist would be more interesting for you?"