Roll D20: Reviews of “Zero Charisma” and “Computer Chess”

Let’s talk about nerds, shall we? Somewhere in the past two decades, nerd culture made its way into mainstream popular culture. All of a sudden, the biggest blockbusters are movies based on comic books, video games are getting respect from an artistic perspective, and high-tech devices are in the hands of every “popular kid” all across the nation. Women wear “Geeks Are Sexy” shirts and The Big Bang Theory is the most-watched comedy on television. It was a strange time to be a nerd. I mean, who in their heart of hearts hasn’t wanted their secret, shameful hobby to become accepted by “normal people”? It’s better than being made fun of for playing Dungeons and Dragons during recess. But there’s a reason for that desire. No one does nerdy things because they’re nerdy. They do them first and foremost because they enjoy them. It’s the enjoyment of those things that makes them nerds. You know deep down that if that jerk who shoves you into the lockers every day actually read a Batman comic, he’d think it was awesome, and he’d probably wear a Batman t-shirt to school just like you. The films we’re talking about today tackle what it means to be a nerd from two very different perspectives. Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess shows nerds in their natural habitat, at a computer chess tournament in the 1980s, while Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews’ Zero Charisma is a much more cynical, raw portrait of a modern-day nerd’s battle against the kinds of people who call themselves “nerds” because they liked The Avengers and owned a Super Nintendo.

We’ll start with Computer Chess, which is undoubtedly the stronger and more interesting film. It’s really hard to describe Computer Chess, but to get a picture of what it’s going for, imagine if Last Year at Marienbad was about the main human characters in Tron. It’s at times a bizarre head-trip through a fairly dull setting. It doesn’t try to play up the drama of the tournament at its center. It doesn’t play up the relationships between the people, either, not even between the men and the tournament’s lone female participant. It has a pretty unbiased eye towards the proceedings. It switches between footage being shot by the characters and stuff that plainly couldn’t have been, all while maintaining an identical visual style. Most of the film isn’t from an in-world camera, but that switch adds a layer of mystique to everything we see. One character asks early on, “Have you been recording this?” to another. Up to this point, I assumed that the entire film was being “recorded” by this character, as we clearly see a scene through this lens in the opening. To my surprise, however, the other man responds, “No.” “Why?” asks the first man. And almost instantly we’re inside the perspective of the in-world camera. It’s a choice that has annoyed me in other films, but this lantern-hanging makes up for it. In fact, there’s stuff we see that simply cannot have been captured by the characters. Occasional color-inversions (the film is shot in black-and-white) and other effects tell us right away that this is not the film we think it is.

And boy is it not. Computer Chess takes place over a single weekend, and like I said, they don’t force the drama. The outcome of the tournament is ostensibly the endgame, but we barely see any of it, except through the eyes of our main characters. You see, the team behind last year’s winning computer is having some major problems. TSAR 3.0 is “committing suicide,” as its co-creator Peter Bishton puts it. When it plays against the other computers in the tournament, it keeps deliberately putting itself in situations which cause it to lose the game. But when it plays against humans, it plays more logically. That choice of words from Peter isn’t accidental. The entire film is based around the idea that one day, machines will become more powerful than men. The endgame of the tournament is that the winning computer will face off against a real-life chess master, Pat Henderson, who is the host of the event. He doesn’t expect computers to outpace humans for another couple of years, in chess-playing at least. Some of the film’s best moments come from the characters discussing where they think technology is headed in the years to come. One character theorizes that the future of computers is in dating. His friend responds, “Wait, computers are gonna start dating each other?”

Computer Chess‘s real strength is in its performances. That documentary-like lens doesn’t work if the people on screen aren’t believable. There’s a real authenticity to the way that the actors stumble over their words. They’re all socially awkward to a degree, so having them all be perfectly eloquent would shatter the illusion a little bit. Patrick Riester as Peter is something of a revelation. It’s rare that we get a realistic portrayal of what a nerd is actually like. They aren’t pedantic loudmouths who spout Star Trek references at every opportunity. Well, not all of them. Peter is quiet, withdrawn, completely uncomfortable in social situations, and completely oblivious to advances made by Shelly, the only woman in the tournament. Myles Paige is lots of fun to watch as Michael Papageorge (pronounced like Papa George), a competitor whose room reservation falls through and ends up drifting around the hotel all weekend.

The nerds of Computer Chess aren’t the romanticized version pushed by shows like The Big Bang Theory. They’re all like Peter, basically. Even the characters who are social and comfortable around people probably wouldn’t do so well at parties. Bujalski’s camera emphasizes this. In one scene where two characters discuss the technical problems plaguing a computer in-depth, he starts quick-cutting like mad. For these guys, coding is akin to a high-stakes action scene. These guys are never shown reading comic books or arguing over small details in their favorite films. They’re just really into technology. What’s funny about the film is that it shows a subset of nerds that would probably still be considered nerds today. Comic books are cool. Video games are cool. Building computers and playing chess? Not so much. That never made it to the mainstream. What’s interesting about these characters is that they have to try hard to be nerds. Building computers and writing software isn’t easy. They do it because they love it.

Which makes Zero Charisma an interesting counter-point to Computer Chess. That film presented nerds in their natural habitat. Sure, they’re quiet and shy and awkward, but deep down they’re just people doing something that they love. Not so here. The protagonist (if you can call him that) of Zero Charisma, Scott, is a nasty brute. He’s the sort of person who purposely surrounds himself with people he can exert control over. He takes immense pride in his nerdery, in a very old-school way. When presented with Miles, a sharp-dressed hipster with a hot girlfriend who can still rattle off starship stats with the best of them, he starts to spiral. To Scott, being a nerd is about having every aspect of your life consumed by your hobby. In his case, it’s a tabletop RPG that he wrote from the ground up. He spends every waking moment consumed by the game. Miles on the other hand gets into the game for fun, as a breezy way to relax. This offends Scott to his core.

See, for Scott, to be a nerd you have to be completely wrapped up in your hobbies, and I do mean completely. He spends all his time working on his campaign. But there’s nothing weird about it because society is okay with nerds now, right? This is tied up in Scott’s own personal issues with control, which it’s implied are related to the fact that he was abandoned by his mother at a young age. He likes being the game master because he gets to have total control over the actions of his friends for a few hours every week. He constantly puts down and harasses his most loyal friend, Wayne, simply because he likes having someone in his life who’s more of a loser than him. Which is why he instantly pegs Miles as his “nemesis.” Miles is part of a new breed of nerd, the kind who has a massively successful pop culture blog and a beautiful girlfriend and his own house. But Scott’s the kind of guy who thinks that you’re not a “real nerd” if you don’t live in your mom’s basement and play tabletop games. World of Warcraft, often thought of as one of the nerdiest pastimes imaginable, is routinely mocked in the film. MMORPG’s are for people with no creativity or imagination, according to Scott. It’s here that the film gets interesting, at least for me. It takes on the idea of “fake geeks” that’s become a big issue recently. Can someone be attractive, successful, and charismatic AND be able to calculate the top speed of the Millennium Falcon? Scott sure doesn’t think so.

The film isn’t perfect. Scott’s an interesting character, but he doesn’t earn the ending he gets. The film itself doesn’t get interesting until about halfway through, and because of that the set-up outweighs the pay-off. Still, the subtle way that Scott and Miles battle each other from within their roles in the game is fun, and the performances all around are really solid. John Gholson has a fun turn as the assistant manager of a game store. At the end of the day, the film raises some interesting questions that the nerd community needs to address.

Zero Charisma asks, “What does it mean to be a nerd?” Computer Chess asks, “What did it ever mean to be a nerd?” Both are questions that nerds have to ask themselves right now. Do nerds even exist in a world where Iron Man 3 makes a billion dollars at the box office? Being a nerd has always been about being on the outside looking in, having hobbies that most people don’t understand or have no interest in. You have to wonder what Zero Charisma‘s Scott would think of Computer Chess‘ Peter. Would Scott treat him the way he treats his friends, as a way to pump himself up by comparison? Or would he be threatened by Peter’s intelligence and intensity? The two characters are complete and total opposites, and yet we brand them both with the same label. The only thing they seem to have in common is that they are compulsively fixated on their primary interest. Maybe that’s what being a nerd is, at the end of the day. Maybe it’s possible to be a nerd for fantasy football as much as it’s possible to be a nerd for Star Wars. While Computer Chess is by far the more stylistically intriguing film, Zero Charisma holds its own as an examination of its characters both in the context of its story and in the real world.

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Josh Rosenfield

Josh Rosenfield is a Film Media major at the University of Rhode Island. He has been writing Popcorn Culture since 2010.

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