When I first watched this teaser trailer, I thought Computer Chess was a documentary put together from actual footage of the programmers who invented a computer that would eventually beat a human grandmaster at chess. But it's actually something far more beautiful and strange. Computer Chess, which just debuted at Sundance, is a fictional story from indie filmmaker Andrew Bujalski, which he created using the film technology of the late 1960s and early 70s when it is set. Somehow, Bujalski managed to perfectly capture this epochal moment in the history of computers and chess, and make it astonishingly realistic as well as funny.
Bujalksi explains his methods and ideas on the Computer Chess website:
For a decade now I've been making features on beautiful, outdated 16mm film, and people have asked constantly, ‘Why don't you just shoot on video?' Right, I wondered, why don't I? Why don't I dig up a beautiful, really outdated old video camera and start dreaming in a language of images that time has passed by entirely? Computer Chess was a long, fondly held fantasy project for me and certainly the most purely intuitive thing I've ever undertaken. From time to time over the years, when I would sometimes despair of trying to come up with a ‘mass appeal' project to pay my bills, I would escape off to a fantasy vision of this weird-looking, weird-feeling, weirdtopic project and a smile would cross my face. In retrospect it feels like my subconscious was putting the whole thing together, very slowly and in complete seclusion (as if fearing terrible reprisal should the conscious mind ever find out about it).
The mysteries of the mind of course also form the backbone of our story. As a species we're learning more and more about how our brains work, but it's difficult to imagine that we'll ever feel fully enlightened about our own processes-as you may know from your own adolescent and/or pot-smoking experiences, when the mind starts to examine itself too intently, things get really…confusing. How bold it seems of us to try to build an ‘artificial intelligence' without anyone quite able to satisfactorily explain what ‘natural' intelligence is! It's easy (and, I'll admit, fun) to laugh at the big, igloo-sized computers of 30+ years ago. Of course today's iPhone has plenty more processing power than the mighty PDP-11 our characters are seen struggling to push across a room. And in the 21st century, plenty of computer programmers have nice haircuts and go to the gym and drive cool cars. But the ‘nerds' of yesteryear, certainly those at the vanguard of AI were, I believe, a different breed. I think of these early programmers almost as a sect of monks, absorbed and dedicated utterly to their mission, to a degree that the rest of the world must have seemed like so much noise and distraction to them.
In our current Oprah-fied culture where we so value ‘well-roundedness,' something seems almost frightening about that kind of antisocial focus. I, of course, can't help but admire it. I have no idea if building artificial intelligence is a noble goal or not, but after spending this much time trying to push my imagination into these programmers' world, I've come to love the guys (and the very rare, in those days, women) who saw this mountain and insisted on climbing it. It's at least as noble as moviemaking, anyhow…
This movie could be the first wave of nerd nostalgia.