By Christopher Campbell | Spout June 6, 2011 at 7:32AM
"Good at chess, bad at life"
I used to think that quote, which is attributed by some to Woody Allen, mostly stemmed from the infamy of Bobby Fischer, the eccentric and reclusive chess champion who forfeited his title after some disagreements with the World Chess Federation rules and ultimately became a criminal ex-pat and spouter of controversial anti-American and anti-Semitic statements around the world. But I learned from the new documentary "Bobby Fischer Against the World" that he was merely the latest and most known in a long history of chess grandmasters who were mentally and socially troubled and quite "bad at life," at least in terms of popular and normal considerations. Logically, a game that has you always thinking steps ahead and seeing a bigger picture than most people, both spatially and temporally, may lead to issues with paranoia and depression. What a fascinating concept to mull over in a documentary.
The film, directed by Oscar nominee Liz Garbus ("The Farm: Angola, USA"), makes me feel okay about being bad at the game, or at least not interested enough to get good at it (newer board games, such as "Monopoly" and "Life" upset my psyche enough). It's also an interesting doc to watch after either (or both) "The Tree of Life," with its simplistic dealings with Heideggerian ideas (which someone like Fischer must have shared, even if he didn't read the philosopher, and I'm not just referring to their mutual Antisemitism), and "X-Men First Class," which relates to Fischer's 1972 World Championship win against Boris Spassky in that they both involve exploitation of the Cold War for popular entertainment (in the X-Men universe, were there also evil mutants at play in Reykjavik that summer?). More than a decade before "Rocky IV" and years prior to the 1980 Olympic hockey game between the U.S. and USSR (depicted in "Miracle"), the East vs. West tension played out over a chess board.
That monumental game takes up a good amount of "Bobby Fischer Against the World," as makes sense for something so representing the goal, peak and measure with which to compare all subsequent events in and for the life of Fischer. I don't know if he would look back on the big picture of his life and say that was his most important or significant move on his biographical chess board, but for us on the outside, it's certainly that in a narrative sense. In a documentary sense, it's the best James Marsh film he didn't direct. Not only does Garbus' latest share a lot of the stylistic qualities of "Man on Wire" and "Project Nim" except for her lack of reenactment material, but it similarly focuses on a '70s celebrity barely remembered four decades later.
Like "Nim," this one sadly can't feature the testimonial of its subject. Fischer died three years ago. But he likely wouldn't have participated anyway. He complained enough about being "swindled" and "ripped off" by the film "Searching for Bobby Fischer," for which he (understandably) didn't receive compensation. That mostly only used his name and some minor biographical information, but it wasn't about him. Would he have preferred not to have a documentary completely focused on his life at all? It's a question I've asked about a lot of documentary subjects lately. The following films have all dealt with reclusive or otherwise private people for whom a bio-doc may be a violation: "Catching Hell"; "Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles"; "Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird"; and "The Tillman Story." The last is the only other one dealing with a deceased private person and the main reason I'm uncertain about this one disrespecting its main figure on some level (we can at least easily deduce that Pat Tillman would not appreciate a doc about him).
As a biography, "Bobby Fischer Against the World" is pretty incomplete. By focusing so much time on the 1972 games it doesn't allow a lot of time for too many details about his life that you'd find in a book about the man. Instead we get a bunch of old men, most of whom knew him or were involved in the World Championship, talking about events as they could be remembered from their perspective. It's like a Marsh film in that oral historiographical sense. There are, I think, a few attempts at discussing Fischer as a person and attempting to explain his mind at the time and later, but nothing overly analytical, which would have been even more disrespectful. Garbus could not access interviews with his mother, Regina, or some of his girlfriends who might have had more light to shed on his personality. But ultimately it's not necessary to the point of the film.
What that point is, I'm still not entirely sure. There isn't really any greater meaning to the story of Bobby Fischer the way Marsh's films may be thought of in contexts of 9/11 or human psychology, respectively. "Bobby Fischer Against the World" does have certain themes above the man involving the Cold War, paranoia in the '70s, and later there is some stuff with 9/11, which Fischer says Americans deserved. But these concepts are not really specific enough or tied together enough to make them worth thinking about. I kind of wish the film had concentrated even more on the the time surrounding the 1972 games, even if that would mean very little address of the illegal 1992 re-match in Yugoslavia that got him in trouble with the U.S. government or his eventual return to Iceland for final years asylum. Because either the doc is a biography or it isn't. The seconds just before the credits make the film seem like a general celebration of chess and how Fischer popularized it. But it doesn't work to that thesis either. In fact, it kind of turns me off even further from the game.
It's not too unfair comparing Garbus to Marsh, not just because she garnered Academy attention way before he did but also because they both now seem equally disciples of Errol Morris (whom she also beat to an Oscar nomination, at least). Part of this for "Bobby Fischer Against the World" is that it employed the skill of editor Karen Schmeer, who died suddenly during the making of this film. You can see some of Morris via Schmeer's work yet more so in the aesthetic properties. For a film that's all archival clippings and talking heads, it's a beautifully shot and polished-looking film and quite enjoyable to watch. Even if, unfortunately, Fischer isn't sitting in front of an interrotron pouring his soul out, Robert McNamara-style. Plus, I have no more problems with this film than Morris' latest, "Tabloid." Both are very entertaining yet are somewhat disappointing to think about later due to their questionable focus on such disapproving figures -- though "Tabloid"'s subject is actually into all the attention, just against how she's portrayed and received, as a joke. At least Fischer isn't treated like a fool.
And of course we can be thankful the doc doesn't use too many chess metaphors or puns (let's leave that for the Hollywood biopic), but some of that could also be that Garbus doesn't seem too passionate about the game nor even the player the film is focused on. It definitely feels like a film where the filmmaker got an idea to make a doc about this intriguing person who had just recently died and then went to town researching him and pouring over whatever footage and photographs of him she could get a hold of. What's on screen is just what Garbus has learned and can now share with us as a proxy (with help from the interviewed experts). It's all as interesting as a report of that kind sounds like, but nothing more.
"Bobby Fischer Against the World" debuts on HBO tonight and will be available on HBO On Demand through September 11.
Recommended If You Like: chess; "Man on Wire"; "Rocky IV"