"Computer Chess" shows the dawn of the digital age

Feb 27, 2013

Credit Courtesy of Computer Chess LLC

This story is part of True/False Conversations, a series of in-depth interviews with the filmmakers of this year’s True/False Festival.  Find the rest of them here or download the podcast on iTunes.

In 1997, a computer beat a human at chess for the first time.  Gary Kasparov was reputedly the best chess player of his time but an IBM program named Deep Blue wore him down. It was a landmark moment for technology and is one of the seminal moments of the digital age. Director Andrew Bujalski, most famous for inaugurating the “Mumblecore” genre in the 1990s—wanted to find the root of that moment, and it took him to the obscure nerd culture of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“Nowadays we live in a world where you can be a quote-unquote nerd but have a nice haircut and go to the gym and have a great looking girlfriend or boyfriend,” Bujalski told the LA times. Bujalski’s nerds are not hipsters who read comic books, but the proto-nerds: awkward, obsessed, and utterly uncool.

Computer Chess takes place at a weekend tournament where programmers with thick glasses and bad haircuts pit their chess playing computer programs against one another. This is an early stage in programming and the computers themselves seem primitive to our eyes. Their monitors are small and oddly curved. They’re massive things that have to be rolled around in dollys. This, Bujalski told me, is the “dawn of the digital age.”

Stories that tell the history of our current digital age are striking a chord right now. This year, Jobs, the Steve Jobs biopic, debuted at sundance, telling the story of Apple’s early days before ipods and iphones. Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network told the “history” of Facebook, a company not yet 10 years old. Not only are we unsure of how we got where we are, but we hardly know the people involved. Before Zuckerberg and Jobs and Gates there were others. Computer Chess joins this project and finds new, strange heroes we haven’t met yet.

Credit Courtesy of Computer Chess LLC

But unlike the Steve Jobs movie and the rest, Computer Chess is sure to fly just under the radar. Bujalski went for a truly period look and shot his film on extremely old video cameras developed in the 1960s. The analog camera produces odd black and white images with a soft, ghostlike effect. Sources of light linger even after they've left the frame. It’s a talky, funny film filled awkward dialogue. And most strangely—for people at the True/False festival anyway—it’s fiction. 

Director Andrew Bujalski spoke to me from Austin, Texas, where he lives:

On fiction vs. documentary

There is a kind of aspect of mockumentary to it. I think that’s not the center of it. That said i think I’ve always borrowed heavily from documentary. Documentary is really valuable training because it teaches you to deal with the material that you have. As opposed to the material that you think you have that you want to have. One way or another every filmmaker has that reckoning where they have to learn the difference between what they thought what they were going to get and what they got.

On the current trend in movies about tech

I didn't know until we premiered the movie about a month ago that I had made something zeitgeisty. It was a surprise to me, but I’m delighted. This movie takes place in the late 70s, early 80s. I was a small child then. But it’s stuff that a whole generation has grown up with. We’re starting to just now wrap our heads around what happened. We’re starting to measure the impact….we’re getting to a point where we can start to look back and start to account for what has happened.

On doing a period piece

I’ve always believed it’s never really about the past per se. It’s always about trying to open a wormhole between the past and the present. I’m always drawn to the same themes and the same kinds of explorations. Every time I make a movie I think well this is like nothing I’ve ever done before. Then I find out from reading the reviews a couple of years later whether or not people think I’m just doing the same old thing or if it’s something new.

Computer Chess will be shown at Thursday February 28 at 10:30p.m., Saturday, March 2 at 8:30p.m. and Sunday March 3 at 6:00p.m. Producer Alex Lipschultz and actor Robin Schwartz will be in attendance.