Checking Out 'Computer Chess'

It's all black and white in Andrew Bujalski's 'Computer Chess'

Computer Chess
Computer Chess (Courtesy of Alex Lipschultz)

“This was my first mumblecore movie,” Austin filmmaker Andrew Bujalski joked yesterday, after a screening of his latest movie, Computer Chess.

He was certainly poking fun at himself, and the rather unfortunate label that's followed his past films, Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation, and Beeswax. But whereas those works were heavy on romantic ennui and modern angst, Computer Chess explores the complicated relationship between humans and machines.

Set in 1980, the film follows several programmers staying at a hotel during a weekend computer chess competition, and the spiritual truths each competitor stumbles upon as their machines win and lose. Bujalski explores the idea of artificial intelligence in its nascent years, as well as the emotions we ascribe to machines, a topic as relevant now as it was 30 years ago. The scene where Austin actor Wiley Wiggins has a “chilling” back and forth with his computer, which may or may not have a soul, is one of the most powerful scenes in the film, and Bujalski was no doubt drawing a bit from the epic 1997 Deep Blue vs. Garry Kasparov rematch, also referenced by Nate Silver in his Sunday panel.

During a Q&A with Bujalski and members of the cast and crew, he explained the film, which debuted at Sundance in January, was a “fantasy project” kicking around in his head for years after he bought a used book on chess. Since he admits he's not very good at being “commercially viable,” he finally went forward with the project and decided to shoot on a Sony AVC-3260 video camera, in black and white, a departure from his usual 16mm format.

There is a a spectral quality to the film, as if a ghost might appear briefly in one of the frames, and Bujalski admitted to being influenced by video William Eggleston shot around Memphis when deciding how to shoot. Interestingly, the script was almost completely improv, and many of the actors were actual computer nerds, so the rambling, heady dialogue feels real because it is.

Several of those actors – Wiggins, Myles Paige, Robin Schwartz, and Jim Lewis – joined Bujalski onstage to explain how they made film about desperate computer programmers funny, touching, and weird. The final question of the day: What are you doing next? Bujalski turned to his cast and crew and asked them: “Do any of you know what I'm doing next?”

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