"Remember when you told me to tell you when you were acting rudely and insensitively?"

First things first. It it is certainly a bad movie. That isn't in itself so rare, of course, but it's nice to think that foul intent is always accompanied by shoddy artistry (which requires momentarily forgetting Leni Riefenstahl, but never mind). It would also be comforting if hateful crap were technically incompetent as well, so you tell immediately and find something better to do. Unfortunately, technical excellence is so easy and cheap to attain these days that it's no longer a reliable metric for anything, but in this case, it would have served you well. That sort of truthfulness in storytelling is rare and, now that I think about, presents an opportunity for kudos. Well done, Computer Chess! You win the prize for consistent awfulness.

Andrew Bujalski could have filmed a technically competent movie on an early generation iPhone, but he chose instead to make it look like amateur VHS. That is, if your amateur VHS setup supported multiple takes at different camera angles, smooth tracking dollies and high-end zooming glass. There might have been a smidgen of wit in presenting material from a bygone time using the technology of that same time, but the substandard production values have nothing really to do with epoch. What we have here is at the level of prepending the name of your souvenir gimcrack shop with "Ye Olde."

Andrew Bujalski could also have composed a plot with some discernible arc and maybe a few reasons to care about the outcome. Countless 4th-quarter, ninth-inning, even 18th hole nail-biters have established that it's practically impossible to disengage an audience once some sort of gladiatorial doings are afoot. Kudos, again, to computer chess for, without even the excuse of obfuscating protective sports gear, making its characters so interchangeable that rooting for one or another would be literally impossible.

Andrew Bujalski could possibly have salvaged the combination of grunge visuals and careful avoidance of human interest by emphasizing a documentary angle. Starting with a lovely collection of ca. 1980 chassis and phosphor CRTs, he had an edge here, but proper followthrough would have meant dropping the bit where one of the computers begins to emit challenging (if adolescent) philosophical ruminations and then flash up fetal ultrasounds. We get it, Andy, someone you know saw 2001 and told you about it. That makes you awesome.

Anyway, all that just makes it a bad movie. What makes it a despicable movie - an American movie in all the ways that pseudo-mumblecore wants most not to be - is the casual application of the most simpleminded, anti-intellectual cliches to researchers who are supposed to hail from the greatest computer science departments in the world, during a generation that produced some of the most important science in history.

Bujalski's computer programmers are defined entirely by their absence of social skills, without even a hint of some compensatory life of the mind. Even Chloe and Edgar on 24 get to chatter excitedly about "avoiding the precompiled headers" and "hyperencrypted subchannels" (n.b. I only made up one of those), hinting at something, which if not quite enviable prowess, at least implies that they do something all day besides remembering not to bathe. I'm not asking for a lecture on minimax and the history of AI, though now that I think about it, the biggest, dumbest, most sugar-sodden audience in the world sat still while dinosaur cloning was explained to them, so surely an arthouse crowd can be expected to endure just a wee dram of edification. Failing that, it could turn out that these nerds are lovable yentas (like Albert Einstein, as one's memory of intolerable movie trailers reminds us) or help a more sympathetic kid to pass the big test so he can enjoy a tastefully screened coming of age.

Let it be quite clear that my standards are low. I will admit characterizations based wholly on daffy stereotypes, limned clumsily with mispronounced technobabble. Pressed to the limit, I can accept sheer nonsense - say, that computer programmers in the 1970s were fond of cheese and said "yowsa" a lot - but there has to be something. You can't define an entire class of humanity by their funny outfits and bad hair. Scrap that, obviously you can. But it makes you an awful person, and it makes your film despicable.


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