Check Mate

Ain't nothin' like the real thing.
Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing.

In the early 1980’s, when we got our first tiny little desktop computer and my husband wanted to put it in our bedroom, I remember feeling strangely disconcerted. For some reason it struck me as a violation of my personal space. I had no idea.

Back then,  computers were still the stuff of geeks. Ordinary people had little truck with them. Now, of course, even trucks have onboard computers.

But for the generations which have grown up since the 90’s it must be hard to fathom how slowly things happened in the olden, golden days of, say, 1984. Hah. Orwell was close, but no cigar.

Last weekend I watched a quietly droll mockumentary called “Computer Chess” which evokes those awkward yet exciting years in the early ’80s when computers still seemed only dorky tools for the scientifically minded. It didn’t help that most computers then were the size of small refrigerators.

In director Andrew Bujalski’s cleverly understated indie black and white film, released this year, the plot centers around a small gathering of computer engineers in the then-new field of artificial intelligence who compete to see which of them has designed the best chess-playing computer program.

The tone and style of the film mimics a primitive home movie. There are moments of humor, and even suspense of a sort, but the dominant keynote is weirdness, and not simply the “oh aren’t nerds funny” type of easy target humor we’ve grown accustomed to seeing on shows like “Big Bang Theory” (and trust me, I am a fan). Rather, the film sustains a bizarre yet absorbing mood, as if Jim Jarmusch and Neil Gaiman had sketched out a plot together on a napkin in some dark after-hours cafe.

I found it entertaining and thought-provoking, in spite of its somewhat sinister undertones. Kind of the way I feel about computers now.

In fact, when I think back to my initial uneasiness about sharing my bedroom with that sleek little desktop all those years ago, I realize that, in dramatic terms, that sly seductress was no Mac. She was Maxine, a rival in tech clothing, and way too smart for me.