Sunday, June 05, 2016

Command Lines: On Andrew Bujalski's COMPUTER CHESS

(The following 2013 essay of mine was originally published in the booklet of the 2014 Masters of Cinema Series Blu-ray/DVD release of Computer Chess.)


In a recent New York magazine (July 22, 2013), Andrew Bujalski counted John Cassavetes’ Love Streams [1984] among his major influences. He noted its “many crazy, formal flourishes” and its “incredible risks,” and remarked that “it has the single most surreal moment in any movie in the bit near the end. I could not begin to explain to you what it is, but it’s stunningly resonant. It’s something I really admired and would love to be able to pull off.”

At BAM’s July retrospective of the complete Cassavetes, I saw Love Streams for the first time: a major event, one of the most thrilling films. Why thrilling: because structurally Love Streams appears to obey no classical form, instead is made of contained episodes arranged side-by-side, sometimes in harmonic parallel, other times almost arbitrarily positioned and resulting in the impression of abrupt twists: the entire effect is that of a card catalogue, of a multi-splendored mechanism of drawers that nonetheless exhibits elemental contiguity exactly, perfunctorily, by its containment within the mechanism. In Love Streams the host-object is the writer’s house; in Computer Chess it is the hotel hosting a conference dedicated to a competition pitting human intelligence against digital computation (a simulacrum of intelligence), in which chess merely plays the role of proxy or, if you will – and in the spirit of the movie – the control.

A film about “artificial intelligence,” then? Not so simple (nor so inherently reductive): First we have to consider the fact that the computer’s simulations of a theoretical chess-player (for these programs indeed simulate a Person, albeit one capable of presumably executing a single task: playing the game of chess) can only exhibit a competence equivalent with the code behind the maneuvers. Next, we must understand the program’s “intelligence” as linked inextricably to the capabilities of the Actual Person who wrote the code. (Indeed, this facet enables some of the funniest and most suspenseful moments in the picture.) Finally, we have to throw this into another relief: chess embodies perhaps like nothing else the weird tectonic of logic v. art. So the game’s appeal to Nabokov, to Kubrick...

Control: chess’s overarching theme: control over the board, proxy battlefield; self-discipline and clarity of thought for strategic dominance. The depiction of this rigor of logic thus pervades the film, but so too does frequent recourse to the “letting go” that inspires the creative breakthrough: hence that “sweet spot” that comes with three whiskeys, with copious amounts of pot or pills: anything to highwire that dialectic between control and what Don DeLillo called at the start of his 1988 novel about Lee Harvey Oswald, Libra, the “no-control”. (I remember a dorm-mate in college who in order to solve a complex problem with a 3D render, hit his bowl, stared at his monitor for an hour, and voilà, five minutes of furious code typing and whatever physics his Wing Commander replica was supposed to command in virtual space, it did.) The penetrative insight. The comparison to DeLillo is perhaps doubly appropriate: His work and Computer Chess share not just a suffusion of concern for those particularly American traits of paranoia and power fantasies, but also a certain oracular ambience that makes particular history (large and small) as it plays out seem as though it carried the force of inevitability. Not only are the film’s glossings on the course of digital development rather accurate (grandmasters have repeatedly been whipped at chess by computers; dating sites became an early-21st-century social norm), the trajectories of refinement predict, whether or not this film is a retro exercise from 2013 or had actually been put together in the early 80s, specific foregone conclusions. Not the mad false-prophecy of Ray Kurzweil’s “Singularity” (I’ll get to that a bit later), but rather something we might dub the Imminentity. (If you told me ten years ago I’d be carrying around 16GB of data on my keychain... I would have believed you. And ten years from now that will look pathetic too, it always will, it always does...)

In other words, the fantasies come true — until or unless they don’t. Just take a look at the character “Captain Apocalypse,” i.e., “John,” a sort of rogue variable within the strictures of the convention, ostensibly unassociated with any league, exhibiting a (half-joking?) obsession with the overlay of a World War III across the hotel tournament and the game of chess itself. So he is who exactly? Is he CIA? NSA? He’s here on a stipend? Is this a penetration, an infiltration? The hotel room hangout scene (taking place at #420 btdubs) might invite much speculation. John pointedly interrogates Les: “You’re telling me you’ve not had any interaction with the Defense Department, the Pentagon, DARPA, the intelligence community... They don’t call it the military-industrial complex for nothing.... This is obviously a militaristic problem you’re trying to solve...” Les: “Is there something you’re not telling me?” Back again to John: “I... get around......” — To come back once more to DeLillo’s Libra: “There is a world inside the world.” (Notice John’s disappointment at the loss of Papageorge [code-name “Checkers,” and his fellow rogue within the confines of the tournament] v. John’s would-be nemesis Les/Alliance; one might forget at first, due to the speed at which the brouhaha following the match takes place, that John’s anger at Papageorge’s defeat probably stems from an inability on the part of the combatant to take the prize money and remunerate John for the stolen pills [represented earlier in a savvy cut between a chessboard and the suitcase spalyed across John’s lap]... and not, maybe, an interest in recruiting an unorthodox anti-Les for organizations unknown...)

Back to the mysteries of Room 420. One of the attendees on the scene argues: “There’s the fundamental assumption that all knowledge can be formally represented, that all knowledge can be reduced to numbers.” He later follows up the idea with a mention that distinguishes this prior conception from something he terms “real artificial intelligence.” If we take into account the disclosure near the film’s end wherein Beuscher not only reveals that the Pentagon has indeed been in touch with their department (and whose staff have been equally perplexed by Tsar’s behavior) but that the system had exhibited traits of a kind of sentiency, with its koanic response to “Where is a soul?”“In the mind.” — then we have a good précis of the idea that the mysteries of consciousness are far more complicated than the formal representation of the mind, the personality, the soul — ultimately, might be convertible to a digital matrix of zeroes-and-ones, a purely binary, digital replicant (or, to use the movie’s term, a formal representation), that would not only flex “intelligence” or conscious initiative, but also implicitly extend the human life-cycle, via cerebral upload to a machine, into infinity and beyond. Infinity pitted against love and life; or the latter phenomena encompassing any possible “reality” of the former. The digital theorist and virtual-reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, in his brilliant 2010 work You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, dismantles through a series of lucid thought-experiments and hypothetical scenarios the theory that machine-thought might ever resolve into a parallel or even effective simulacrum of human consciousness — in direct and explicit contradiction to the cultish latter-day assertions of futurist Ray Kurzweil, who posits that humanity is approaching a point which he dubs “the Singularity,” whereby man and machine hit an “ideal” convergence point, whereupon our species will be granted the ability to live forever... so long as we embrace the possibility of uploading our brains into storage-systems and leave behind the “meat” of the body (to use a term out of David Cronenberg; indeed here Cronenberg’s “new flesh” need not even be flesh, as far as Kurzweil is concerned), and thus enter optionally either a fully cybernetic, android-podded existence, or entirely holographical virtual existence. A foreboding suggestion of this endgame rears up just as the Tsar team prepares to face-off in a match against a programmer named simply “Luke”: “Not an acronym! Luke is me — Luke is my computer — Luke is the software I wrote for this contest. So it’s all Luke, just me, version 1.”

Paradox courses throughout the ideas underpinning any discourse of consciousness and machine sentiency. The primal therapist portends that “One want to be two; two want to be one.” We hear, in reference to the “automatonic” Turkish chess player of history, that a particular piece of code, “instead of a man hiding inside a machine,” is “a program hiding inside of another program.” Peter, unable to act with any agency towards reciprocating Shelly’s advances, asks her whether, during her bizarre convention-room revery, she happened to “see anything where, like, if two bodies would come together, one of them would disappear?” In the film’s climax, the Tsar system appears to self-activate before perishing in what might be perceived as either a murder/computer-slaughter (Peter — consciously or not — leaves the window open so that the rain will fry Tsar’s circuitry) or a suicide on the part of the machine itself (overheating in an infinite-loop of scrolling on-screen characters — this following its constant attempts to kill off its king — “This is either suicide, or the most brilliant game of the entire tournament.”). The sole color section of the film gives us Papageorge at his mother’s house, searching frantically for a wooden box containing a stash of bills that was deposited in the home by a man who was his uncle, and yet not his uncle, before Papageorge worries aloud that he himself feels “lost in a loop.”

This color 16mm section is indicative of a process that operates at the very core of the film: that the film itself has developed its own sentiency, that point-of-view as expressed in various scenes — from the color chapter to the ghostly tracking shots, the arbitrary split-screens, and “topic” titles — results from some extra-diegetic force, perhaps from some film-machine-consciousness itself, that is, neither from the director or from the chance and/or material qualities of the medium: rather, some third entity, some “consciousness-off” like the one that beams-in the black-and-white stills in Jacques Rivette’s Out 1: Spectre [1974]. “We’re going around in circles, aren’t we?” agonises one player in particular, as though free-will itself were slipping away, and I recall a characterization of Gus Van Sant’s 2003 Elephant by the critic B. Kite, who likens the film to a video game that persistently resets itself.

The final scenes of Computer Chess strike me as desolate: Peter’s inaction gives way to a repeat of a woman coming to his room, this time by way of a prostitute we’ve already seen with Papageorge. She removes a piece of her skull, as though she were subject to trepanation (a practice once believed to expand consciousness), and reveals a lobe made of circuitry. Imagined, or real? Can there be any difference, at this point in the action? The last shots find the camera looking in on itself and, as we switch to its own point-of-view, burning out its tubes. The film destroys the film. Cut to end credits.......

—— But P.S.: What to say about the cats?

Only that stranger things have happened. The cats are the cats.

Or, as Professor Schoesser puts it: “Everything is not everything — there’s more.”


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