Courtesy of Kino Lorber Inc

Computer Chess
Nov 1 at 7; Nov 2 at 5:30 & 7:30
$9; students & seniors $7
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
1001 Bissonnet St
713-639-7515
mfah.org/films 

Austin-based filmmaker Andrew Bujalski, known for directing so-called “mumblecore” movies like Mutual Appreciation and Funny Ha Ha, is known for shooting films in 16mm, even after most of his indie peers (and many mainstream directors) have switched over to digital video.

In interviews, Bujalski is constantly asked about his preference for 16mm; many of the questions seem tinged with anger, as if Bujalski preference for film stock meant that he had declared war on the 21st century.

In his latest production, Computer Chess, Bujalski finally gave in and shot the film on video. But it wasn’t digital video, or even VHS—Bujalski shot the film on a vintage Sony black-and-white tube camera. “There was some part of me that wanted to say, ‘Okay, if you bastards want video so much, I’ll show you video,’” Bujalski says, laughing.

Andrew Bujalski

The film is set during a weekend tournament for chess software programmers in the 1980s. Years before IBM’s Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov, the programmers struggle to teach their computers how to mimic a human player, laying the groundwork for modern artificial intelligence. 

The film’s subject wasn’t an obvious choice for Bujalski, who claims no particular expertise at either chess or computers. “There was a part of me that wondered what the purpose was of teaching computers to play chess,” Bujalski says. “Doesn’t that just take the fun out of chess?”

But after meeting with a few of the original software engineers, and learning more about what they were trying to accomplish, he became fascinated by the milieu of 1980s computer programming.

Courtesy of Kino Lorber Inc

The idea for Computer Chess stayed with Bujalski for years while he was shooting other films. “It was the thing I thought about when I felt frustrated trying to think in commercial terms,” he says. “I would go to my happy place and think about the least commercial idea imaginable.” In the end, he got the chance to make his dream project.

“As much as it seems inhuman to want to teach a computer how to play chess, it’s really a completely human endeavor. It’s the same kind of obsession that leads people to climb Mount Everest and that leads people like me to go make indie movies that the world isn’t necessarily clamoring for. You do it because you feel like you need to prove something to yourself.”

Andrew Bujalski will introduce tomorrow’s screenings of Computer Chess.

 

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