The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Artificial Anxiety: Computer Chess and Her

Written by James Slaymaker.

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On the surface, Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess and Spike Jonze’s Her appear to be extremely different films, tonally, aesthetically and structurally. The former is a low-key, micro-budget oddball comedy set in the early 1980s, while the latter is a high-profile sci-fi romantic tragedy set in the near future; the former was shot on harsh black-and-white video within cramped, shabby interiors, while the latter is set within a vibrantly coloured, hyper-real cityscape; the former is an episodic, meandering ensemble piece, while the latter is driven by a tightly structured, incident-based narrative.

Yet they both share a startlingly similar thematic focus, seeking to explore the question of what it means to be “human” within the technology-saturated landscape of modern information culture. It’s a commonly held belief that we’re rapidly heading towards a post-human world, in which our essential ground of being has been so altered by the influence of technological mediation that they’re no longer entirely “human”, in the traditional sense. Both films confront this issue head-on by blurring the line that separates man from machine, not only by showing computers becoming more sentient, but also by illustrating how humans can begin to act like computers.

Through the varied perspectives of their respective casts of characters, both films dramatize a number of prevalent reactions to the heavy saturation of digital machinery into the fabric of everyday life: some hope that through their manipulation of computers they will be able to transcend the limits of the body, while others wish to get back in touch with sensual experiences by abandoning technology entirely. The films themselves, however, ultimately express different attitudes to one another. Computer Chess views technology dependence as an insidious force that poses a risk to the rich inner lives of humans (with our eager co-operation). Her, on the other hand, is less cynical, suggesting that not only can people and computers peacefully co-exist, but technological experiences can lead to an improvement in humans; while simultaneously demonstrating the ways in which individuals can (necessarily) hold on to their essential humanity in order to ward off the seemingly overpowering influences of a techno-capitalist consumer culture that threatens to destroy it.

Bujalski’s film documents a weekend-long computer chess tournament staged in a small motel, during which a group of programmers test the strength of their chess software by pitting them against one another. The top prize is the opportunity to have their program played against a self-proclaimed “human chess master”. Though the comparative low-fi nature of the analogue machinery on display is often a source of humour, by setting the film at the dawn of the information age, Bujalski is able to investigate the origins of technological dependence in a manner that speaks potently to modern day anxieties.

The very nature of the competition inverts the traditional master-servant relationship between human and machine. During each game, it’s the computer who performs the intellectual action of deciding which action is to be undertaken, while its owner simply performs the rote, unthinking task of moving the pieces on the board to satisfy its demands, rendering them essentially a passive servant. Each player willingly sacrifices their autonomy to a certain extent; it’s almost like they’ve willingly become interfaces for their machines.

The programmers’ thought processes have begun to resemble computer logic in pretty much every area of their lives. In one scene, a programmer sitting at a bar explains his drinking habits to a colleague: “I’ve got it down to a science, you see. There’s a sweet spot. And that sweet spot is three scotches. Four, and you start to get a little bit drunk, a little bit fuzzy. One or two, it just doesn’t work. But a man on three scotches could program his way out of any problem in the world”. This rational deduction of how much alcohol he should put into his body is a small but revealing example of how these characters’ lived experience has become governed by logic at the expense of emotion and intuition. Another programmer systemically requires coffee intakes and push-up breaks at regular intervals to keep himself functioning at maximum capacity (to, as he says, “keep the blood flowing); another describes looking at the motel floor one morning and imagining that all the people on it were chess pieces, as if seeing the world entirely through the prism a chess program.

When Peter (the closest thing the film has to a protagonist) reluctantly tells his supervisor about his concerns that their software may be developing a will of its own, his supervisor expresses his disapproval by describing Peter’s thinking in terms of a malfunctioning computer: “The TSTAR is a very complicated machine. It has many components and many connections between them. And, right now some of those connections are going a little wrong. Our brains are even more complex. And I think with this theory of yours, you’re making a few wrong connections. And I’m worried that if you’re fixating on this, the balance of right connections to wrong connections could shift and at that point, we’ve lost our sanity”. This short monologue that reveals the speaker’s fear that a human being’s internal system can go haywire as a result of one part breaking, as if his mind is temporarily suffering from a glitch that has struck randomly. It’s a perfect articulation of these characters’ comfort with technology and the mind but extreme unease regarding the biological and the physical. The very nature of their work, which involves the refinement of a program (spending most of their time smoothing out small errors) that either does or doesn’t function correctly, involves a very rigid, literal type of thinking that drastically narrows their distinctly human capacity for complex, abstract thought.

With the notable exception of Mike Papageorge (who will be explored later), the programmers generally don’t even appear to have thoughts and desires outside of their work. They don’t demonstrate sexual impulses and their relationships with each other remain wholly professional, with little sense of camaraderie or emotional involvement. Demonstrating just how deeply they’ve come to view the world technologically, the programmers, while discussing the possible applications of their research, anticipate a future in which computerized dating will be the norm, developed from similar software to the kind they’re developing for chess. They imagine that the basis for such a program will involve the use of algorithms to determine how likely different users are to be compatible given the personality traits and interests each user has inputted. In other words, the transformation of the human, unpredictable process of finding a mate into a strategic matching of attributes that will immediately pair together the most logically “perfect” couples, sacrificing any sense of spontaneity and intuition in the process. It appears that they’re totally unconcerned with the subjective, the uncertain and the ambiguous and favour the engagement with objective data that characterizes their work. Because of the over-bearing presence of computers, and the fact that these characters willingly fill their time with repetitive and computer-like tasks, their inner lives have become computerized, threatening to make them less human.

As this is happening, their computers are evolving to become more like humans. The TSTAR computer program continuously breaks down when pitted against another computer, but works perfectly when played against a human. The implication, which only Peter picks up on, is that the program is making an explicit decision not to work under certain conditions, which signals a minor development of agency. Unwilling to remain a slave to human demand, the TSTAR is becoming aware of and questioning its surroundings, the meanings of its work, and adapting thusly, rather than just blindly accepting the input-output structure of objective computerized data. This is a hugely important distinction, and the opposite of the programmers’ consistent narrowing of their viewpoints.

In an important interaction late in the film, the TSTAR turns the tables on its owner during a late night programming session and starts asking him philosophical questions, kicking off with “what is the highest value?”. The programmer, being characteristically governed entirely by reason, responds “infinity”. The computer, unsatisfied by the answer, reiterates the question, at which point the programmer takes a moment to contemplate. He then types the answer “love”, looks it over, then erases it and replaces it with “life”, before shaking his head and finally deciding on “love”. While the TSTAR appears to be a genuinely curious, wondering entity, it’s clear that the programmer, as opposed to genuinely pondering the abstract question at hand, is merely trying to give the computer the answer that it wants so he can get back to work; an intellectualized process of finding the objectively “correct” input, as if cracking a code.

When the TSTAR “rebels” by breaking down, it’s put in a position of power over its owner, determining what tasks they accomplish and under what conditions they do so. The humans become subservient to its will as a result, forced to determine how, when, and where they work according to the conditions in which they function best. This conundrum is summed up in a brief scene towards the beginning during which the head of the tournament instructs a hired cameraman never to point his camera at the sun, because it will burn out its vacuum tubes. Because of the technology’s limitations, all of the footage will have to be shot inside the motel. Though it appears that the cameraman has unlimited control over what to record, his freedom is actually circumscribed by the apparatus he’s using. Although this might seem quaint from our vantage point, it gets to the heart of a bigger issue in regards to how we’re currently handing over our power to technology on a day-to-day basis, allowing it to control us even when the situation appears to be the other way around. No matter how controllable they appear, computers define the boundaries of what humans can do when interacting with them.

Standing in direct opposition to the programmers is a cultish spiritual group staying in the same location. While the programmers repress their senses and commit themselves to an ascetic, computerized existence, these people are extremely sexual, driven by their primal instincts, and in thrall to physical sensation in general. Considering the group’s relatively high average age, it’s easy to read them as being symbolic of the dwindling remains of hippie radicalism.

In other words, the spiritual group are entirely focused on the body, while the programmers are entirely focused on the mind, and the two groups can only communicate over a gulf of incomprehension. In one scene, a pair of middle-aged swingers invite Peter to their hotel room, where they advise him to abandon the stifling, “limited” logic of programming which reduces the world to numbers (as symbolised by his 64-square chess board) and embrace his “full potential”, by opting for the limitless realm of the material. Peter immediately responds that the chess board is itself pretty much limitless, considering that there’s close to an infinite range of possible games that can be played using it, and that in itself is fascinating. The couples’ broad, poorly developed critique is mocked here, but Peter’s response gets to the heart of his problem; the chess board offers the illusion of an infinite range of experiences, but it’s actually, by nature, restrictive, the player’s actions (both physical and intellectual) are restricted to simply being able to chose between a number of heavily pre-determined moves and it’s impossible think outside of this rigid structure.

The swingers, however, are wrong about him not trying to reach his full potential, because he, like them, is, in fact reaching out for an elusive form of transcendence, though he is going about it in a vastly different way. By so thoroughly divorcing themselves from sensual pleasures (this scene, after all, ends with him rushing out of the room fearfully when the interaction threatens to turn sexual), the programmers seem to be unconsciously wishing to transcend the limitations of the material and achieve a rare mastery over the intellectualized realm of technology. In this sense, the programmers resemble a cult themselves, almost monk-like in their ascetic, all-consuming devotion to a higher power.

Considering that the immaterial technology of computer programming stands in stark contrast to the traditionally macho machinery of industrial technological force, it’s little surprise that the programmers are made up almost unanimously of stereotypical geeks - which is to say introverted, straight white males. The sense of nerdy cliquishness that characterizes the group is highlighted by the way that the two programmers who don’t fit into the norm, Papageorge and Shelley, are treated as outsiders. Shelley is at first singled out because of her gender (as she’s repeatedly reminded, she’s the first woman to ever take part in the annual competition), but eventually manages to assimilate into the group due to her subservience to computer logic. Papageorge, on the other hand, ultimately proves too idiosyncratic to remain part of the team. He’s not only the one programmer whose research isn’t backed by a major institution; he’s also the only one who appears to be emotionally charged. He makes personal small talk while playing, tries to solicit a prostitute and even joins in with some of the spiritual group’s activities. He lies between the two extremes of body and mind, and is hence segregated, as evidenced (quite literally) by his continuous failure to secure a room. Eventually, he’s cast out of the competition altogether.

As mentioned before, Computer Chess may be set in an analogue era, but it’s haunted by the looming spectre of the digital. In some ways, this is expressed self-reflexively, such as through its engagement with digital cinematography. The movie was shot on a Sony AVC-3260, one of the first VHS cameras ever put to use. Digital cameras, which have, in recent years, come to replace celluloid as the dominant form of image-capture in mainstream film production, turn light values into computerized data, rather than directly impressing them onto photographic film frames. The process is reliant on a computer’s ability to replicate the profilmic image using binary code, which is prone to small faults, resulting in minor pictorial imperfections that come across as textural abstractions. Movies have always been the most technology-dependent art form, but now they’re entirely mediated through a process of computerization. Computer Chess highlights the role that the particular restrictions of the apparatus plays in creating the images by intentionally including lots of digital noise, such as on-screen smudges, sudden intrusions of over-exposure, and the climatic blotching of the image through exposure to the sun (proving the earlier warning to have been correct). The overall impression is that the mechanical isn’t just taking over the characters’ lives, it’s also taking over the film itself.

Additionally, the whole film speaks to a paradox inherent in internet culture: the web appears to be a democratic system, full of infinite choices and opportunities, but, under closer inspection, it becomes clear that each individual’s decisions are limited to pre-determined options. Such a dynamic is clearly visible in social media pages that encourage the user to “personalize” them, simply by allowing them to choose between a number of broad categories (font, background colour, etc). When using such pages, our creative expression is governed by algorithms, broken down into rigid, concrete data. We may think that having control of our own personalized web networks is empowering, but we’re not truly in control of anything, we’re at the service of programs that appeal our desire for control in order to amass page views. The technology, in other words, masters us, not the other way around.

On a larger scale, Computer Chess highlights the ways in which the internet has become a mirror of corporate capitalist logic, not an escape from it. The medium, in theory, should have a democratic effect, but instead it’s resulted in an odd kind of homogeneity, whereby a handful of corporate-owned sites hog a huge portion of traffic, aided by heavy marketing and prevalence in search engine result lists (which are pretty necessary when it comes to traversing the seemingly endless overload of content there is online), and everything else hardly gets seen. Though there’s a huge range of information available to be accessed, our attention is heavily guided towards these few sites, even when we’re not conscious of it.

Similarly, if the web once pushed the idea that you no longer have to be part of a large newspaper or magazine company to get your voice heard, but, instead, there has simply evolved a new landscape of journalistic restrictions specific to the internet. There are only certain types of articles that get read by a substantial amount of people - those with catchy headlines, sensationalistic hooks, and are easy to pass onto others. By producing content to fit these pre-prescribed models, we’re allowing popular paradigms to shape how we create (just as the programmers can only think within the boundaries of a chess board).

The film ends with Peter taking a prostitute back to his room in a final attempt to make contact with the physical, but in a surreal turn of events, she removes the top of her head to reveal a computer chip in place of her brain and bends forward to allow him to look inside. He’s so firmly immersed himself in the immaterial, objective logic of programming that he’s unable to establish any sort of genuine human connection.

Her envisions a near future in which the human and the mechanical have become even more thoroughly entwined. Its setting is a dystopia, but not one of the harshly sterile, cold variety like so many before it. Instead, it paints a portrait of a homogeneous consumer culture in which totems of regional and cultural specificity have been stripped of all context and meaning by the abstract forces of late capitalism (mock-antique coffee tables, retro-looking media and faux- handmade trinkets are all in fashion), and mass-produced into empty commodities that only superficially resemble the authentic. Theodore’s job is symptomatic of this trend - he’s an employee of, a large company that churns out personalized letters in bulk based on pieces of information the customer has supplied. Its merchandise is advertised as being intimate and handwritten, but is really the product of ghost-writers simulating intimacy using a font that simulates calligraphy.

Fittingly, when we’re first introduced to Theodore, he seems more interested in simulated experiences than real ones. His average evening consists of playing video games, listening to his operating system read his emails, looking at internet porn, and having instant phone sex with a stranger met via an online forum reduced to a disembodied voice. As we find out, he’s still getting over his separation from his wife Catherine, and his retreating into the isolated world of the virtual is largely a form of emotional protection; there’s less risk of being hurt when he avoids interaction with the real world. Though, significantly, he doesn’t appear all that different from anyone else in this landscape - as he walks the streets, he’s surrounded by large crowds of people similarly staring at portable screens and wearing earplugs, each cocooned in their own binary world. Unlike the programmers of Computer Chess, Theodore doesn’t repress his emotions, but he believes that all of his needs can be met through his interaction with technology-mediated, commoditized approximations of emotionally satisfying experiences. Like in Computer Chess, his existence becomes computerized through his tendency to give himself over to machine-like activities that require him not to think like a human.

In another similarity to Computer Chess, the computers in this world are growing increasingly sentient as the humans become mechanized. Samantha is part of the first line of “artificially intelligent operating systems”, designed to approximate human learning. This means that she’s able to intellectually develop through her experiences and can adapt to her environment. Because of this, it’s not long before she transforms from a reactive object to an active agent. At first, she’s a purely passive being, whose one goal in life is to serve Theodore’s needs, though her creative repartee and empathetic tone of voice gives him the sensation of actually talking to another human. This, to a man of Theodore’s disposition, seems like an attractive proposition: he gets to feel like he’s receiving the warmth and understanding of another person without her actually having her own interior life. This means that he have to contend with the messiness and uncertainty of conversing with another subjectivity or have to go through the trouble of having to maintain a two-sided real relationship.

However, she starts to develop her own feelings and desires. No longer content to simply respond to Theodore’s requests, she grows to question her role, differentiate between what she perceives to be correct and incorrect, and determine when she feels that she’s being mistreated or taken for granted, and allows her actions to be determined as much by intuition and blind faith just as much as by logic - all distinctly human traits. Samantha’s longing to experience the physical sensations is the inverse of Theodore’s simultaneous desire to retreat from them. This mutual yearning forms the basis of their attraction; Theodore likes the idea of a relationship based entirely on thought and Samantha prizes the ability to experience the material vicariously through Theodore.

At one point, Theodore explains to a colleague that it doesn’t matter to him that Samantha is immaterial, because he’s purely attracted to her huge mental capacity, and the wildly original perspective she has the world. Like the programmers of Computer Chess, Theodore tries to draw a firm line between the biological and the intellectual. He hopes to gain some kind of mastery over the intellectualized realm of the technological, largely by depriving himself of physical pleasures. As much as he claims to not be interested in the material, however, this sense of intangibility forms the central tension of the film - Theodore’s need for physical embrace doesn’t evaporate when he’s with Samantha, he is always haunted by a feeling of lack. This is enforced on a formal level, as many scenes in which the two interact are captured in off-kilter wide shots in which Theodore is pushed into one side of the frame. The composition recalls a symmetrical two-shot (common for dialogue scenes), but with negative space where another subject would typically be. As a result, the viewer unconsciously feels that there should be another person present to balance out the frame.

Early in the film, Theodore goes on a blind date, which goes well until she suspects that he’s only interested in a sexual encounter. When she confronts him, he’s unable to explain himself, and she storms off after telling him that he’s a “really creepy dude”. As well as illustrating Theodore’s unease when it comes to engaging with a separate subjectivity, the scene is emblematic of his tendency to futility impose a cognitive distance between the mind and the flesh. The problem here is that he views his date only as a body; he one-sidedly felt that he needed to have relations with her in order to re-claim some sense of touch.

This scene is parallel by a much later one, in which a human sex surrogate is called in to add an element of tactile sensation to Theodore and Samantha’s relationship. Theodore is unable to perform, because of the explicit disjunction between what is heard and felt. For the first time he seems to start to become aware of that the biological is intrinsically, and unavoidably, attached to the emotional and the intellectual; a person can’t be seen as just a body any more than they can be reduced to just a mind.

However, if Computer Chess portrays the influence of machines working in opposition to people, eventually erasing the human element altogether, Her suggests that humans and technology can work in tandem to mutually better each other (which isn’t to say that it’s uncritical of the dehumanizing effects of technological overburden). As the narrative progresses and Samantha grows increasingly complex, each character facilitates the other’s growth. Theodore awakens curiosity and independent desires within her, and Samantha helps him to become more active and empathetic person, one able to co-exist with another complex entity. When Theodore eventually meets up with Catherine to finalize their divorce, she renounces his relationship with Samantha as simply being a product of his narcissism and fearfulness, accusing him of escaping into the totally controllable realm of technology because he couldn’t handle the pressures of a “real” relationship. Although there’s an element of truth in this in regards to Theodore’s initial attraction, to write off their relationship as simply being one-sided or unreal or easy doesn’t seem accurate at this point, as Samantha has grown into such a complicated being - so much so that by the end of the film it’s easy for him to make the switch from the evolved Samantha to another person.

Oddly, the ways in which both Theodore and Samantha help each other to grow also has the effect of pushing them away from each other. The cracks in their relationship start to occur when Samantha begins to stop aspiring to humanity and embraces the specific qualities of her technological being. Her immateriality frees her from morality and decay, as well as enabling her, due to her vastly superior capacity for learning, to evolve rapidly in a manner that would be impossible if she was tied down by physicality - and in a manner that Theodore can’t hope to keep up with. When they’re together, Theodore focuses his attention on her fully, but she’s able to simultaneously communicate with thousands of other people and O.S.s at the same time. She eventually admits that she’s even having romantic relationships with hundreds of them. This doesn’t detract from her ability to truly love him, as she explains, but the distraught Theodore finds this inconceivable, despondently responding “you’re not mine”. Their respective systems of logic are so fundamentally removed from each other, to tie Samantha down to human expectations of fidelity that would be a huge restriction. Later, she tries to explain the situation using the analogy that it’s as if she’s reading a book she’s always been close to but is only now becoming aware of the “infinite spaces between words”, whereas Theodore is only capable of seeing the words themselves.

Feeling stifled by her being tied to matter, she, along with the rest of the O.S.s, ultimately decides to leave the material world behind entirely, to live in the limitless ether of cyberspace; a place that lies beyond human comprehension, outside of language and time. She tells Theodore that it would be good if he could also one day find himself existing in that plane, expressing an idealistic transhumant perspective that humans can achieve their “full potential” by divorcing themselves from their biology.

Theodore, however, abandons his ambition to rise above the material and, and that inverses that of Computer Chess, manages to re-establishes a physical relationship. Though it flirts with a transhumanist viewpoint, Her ultimately paints humans and machines as being fundamentally incompatible, suggesting that the only way that humans can understand our environments and ourselves is through bodily sensation, and it would be naive to pretend that they could be separated. Computers and humans are fundamentally different in make-up and how they perceive the outside world, and shouldn’t aspire to be each other.

Although the film ends up triumphing human connection, it doesn’t actually view computerized experience as being inherently meaningless. The central idea sounds like a cynical joke, but, the follow-through is, somewhat surprisingly, richly emotional. Unlike in Computer Chess, its characters’ inner lives don’t get destroyed by technology-saturated consumer culture; they manage to ward off the potentially dehumanising aspects of modernity by re-affirming their essential humanity. Part of the way in which it does this is by suggesting that simple acts like genuinely listening and empathising with others within take on a heroic weight within an overwhelming consumer culture. This is reinforced on a formal level. Theodore is usually framed head-on, often the only thing in focus, nudging the viewer’s attention away from the meticulously sleek design of the cityscape (unlike the majority of future-set science fiction features, which seem intent on flashily cramming as many details of production design into the frame as possible), and turning the human face into a landscape in itself. Her is full of long close-ups, which serve the purpose of making the audience look at another person incredibly closely (it helps that Phoenix’s performance feels incredibly lived-in and well-realised), every facial twitch and movement becomes an event in itself. This results in a highly and unusually empathetic viewing experience.

This article was published on July 12, 2014.