Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Bobby Fischer Against the World

The trajectory of Bobby Fischer’s life is a difficult to put an upbeat fimic spin upon. In 1972, aged just 30, he was a national hero for defeating the incumbent Soviet chess champion Boris Spassky in their World Championship Match. But by the time of his death in 2008 his anti-US, anti-Semitic and other remarks had led to his being a zero living in exile.

That Fischer was able to find a home in Iceland in the 1990s, after an extradition warrant for his arrest was issued by the US government for his breaching sanctions against Yugoslavia by playing there during it civil wars nevertheless raises questions as to the objectivity of the film’s title: Was it really Bobby Fischer against the entire world, or was it ‘merely’ Bobby Fischer against the US government and – admittedly far, far more problematically – the international Jewish conspiracy that he perceived?

The filmmakers never really get to grips with this side of Fischer. Maybe they could not, but the formal approach they have chosen, that comfortable and familiar mix of talking head interviews and archival footage, frequently overlaid with period-setting music, does not help. Fischer’s grandmaster contemporaries like Larry Evans and Anthony Saidy are better at explaining his chess than their own responses to his eccentricities even in the 1960s, where there (and others’) pop psychologising is frequently in evidence. The musical choices also seem arbitrary – What does Gary Glitter have in common with Fischer, other than also becoming a pariah figure? Did Fischer listen to glam rock or to Booker T. and the MG’s or Isaac Hayes?

A contrast with another film about a troubled genius who retired at the height of his powers, namely 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould is instructive here: Its filmmakers seem to have had the sense that they could not explain everything about the enigmatic Canadian pianist, and so chose a more consciously fragmentary approach to convey an appropriate sense of otherness or even otherworldliness.

Here, by contrast, we belatedly learn of Fischer’s involvement with an Evangelical Christian group only at the point he decided to leave them in the mid-1970s, but not at the point when he first joined them over a decade earlier. It’s fragmentary, yes, but not in a clearly worked through, properly articulated way. Perhaps it could be a reflection of Fischer’s increasingly paranoid dislocation, but if so we again come back to the fact that the filmmakers make no attempt to explore how the ideas he came to hold made sense to him.

Two moments stand out here. The first is a talking head piece from Henry Kissinger. Undoubtedly his presence was a coup for the filmmakers and he was obviously a major player in the geopolitical chess games of the Cold War that form the backdrop to the Fischer’s story. But Kissinger’s presence also inadvertently makes it clear that Fischer’s anti-Americanism was never going to be seriously engaged with and also offers anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists proof of what they are looking for in that “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you” manner. The second, is a fragment from a US television news programme at the time of the Fischer-Spassky match. It is the first item on the agenda. Watergate is relegated to second.

Fisher may have been the greatest chess player ever and the man most important for raising its profile, particularly in the west, but ultimately I was left wondering how important chess itself is in the grand scheme of things and whether the tragedy presented might be attributed to too little rather than too much chess. Had Fischer literally lived solely for chess and shown absolutely no interest in anything else, most notably politics, would he have been okay? Obviously it would be wrong to expect the filmmakers to answer this question in a serious way, but taken on its own terms Bobby Fischer Against the World raises too many questions and offers too few answers.

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