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'Computer Chess' puts the byte on old-school nerd territory

| Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013, 7:51 p.m.

For taking up so little physical and sociological space, narrow subcultures prove to be rich territory for mockumentary-style musings. And “Computer Chess,” a clever and supremely self-satisfied “found-footage” film set in (and filmed in the style of) the early 1980s, lampoons and celebrates the narrowest of possible subcultures: chess-software programmers.

The action unfolds in the conference room of a drab hotel during an annual tournament for men (and this year, one woman) hell-bent on creating a chess-playing program that finally can defeat a human chess master.

There's an endearing innocence to the era, nobody quite understanding the magnitude of the looming Information Age, though they know they're on the cusp of something profound (except for the one guy who sagely predicts, “You want to know the real future of computers? Dating.”).

The insular, obsessive programmers are Cold War-weary, resigned to the inevitability of World War III, wary of the militaristic applications of chess-playing computers. But, unable to stop the march of terrible progress, they plow ahead, inching closer and closer to developing a computer brain that mimics a human one. Let others worry about the practical applications.

It's also an era of clunky technology: large computers as weighty as wheelbarrows, whirring overhead projectors, plastic-framed eyeglasses it's hard to believe anyone ever thought looked good. It's complementarily filmed in the shaky monochrome of an old Sony camera.

It's clever. It's also occasionally a chore to watch, true to the boredom you'd expect to feel listening to computer programmers hash out chess logistics. It approaches its subjects not with the gleeful, madcap hilarity of a Christopher Guest mockumentary (“Best in Show,” “A Mighty Wind”), but with the calculated precision of lines of code. It's the driest of wits — the psychic equivalent of chewing a mouthful of saltine crackers and not having a glass of milk with which to wash it down. You can admire a clever code, but you sure as heck can't love it.

Barbara Vandenburgh is a staff writer for the Arizona Republic.

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