[2 June 2011]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Hey, well, I’m the friendly stranger in the black sedan,
Won’t you hop inside my car?
—Ides of March, “Vehicle”
Fascinating and infuriating, vulnerable and impenetrable. The problem of Bobby Fischer remains unsolved by the end of Bobby Fischer Against the World. Liz Garbus’ documentary takes on a subject so convoluted, so difficult and elusive, that he resists the very process of documentation.
This difficulty is the point of departure for the film, premiering on 2 June at Stranger Than Fiction (a pre-Summer Season special screening, followed by a Q&A with the director), and then kicking off HBO‘s Summer Documentary Series on Monday, 6 June. As it presents the many contradictions Fischer embodied, his shyness and his arrogance, for instance, the movie also offers a series of interviewees with ideas about him, friends and colleagues, experts and historians—individuals who need to understand Fischer in their own ways.
It may be that chess played a part in Fischer’s evolution. Certainly, the mystery of the game is forever attached to his. In chess, David Shenk says, “You are putting yourself in a world that’s infinite, it’s abstract. You are in essence reshaping your mind.” If it’s impossible to know who Fischer’s mind was shaped, or how he shaped it, the film underscores the effects he had on people around him, the remarkable brilliance he displayed, the acolytes he inspired, and the popularity he brought to chess, which was featured on ABCS Sports when he played (more than one observer notes that he made chess as exciting as boxing or that he was like Muhammad Ali).
Fischer’s fame came early and seems almost instantly toxic. As Dick Cavett laments its effects on “the young,” how it “totally distorts their world,” the film shows Fischer on talk shows and in interviews, ill at ease and asserting, again and again, that he wants only to play more chess: “I haven’t played enough chess,” he says.
His encounters with fame started early: in 1958, at age 14, he won the U.S. Chess Championship. A year and a half later, he became the youngest international grandmaster ever. He won the 1963–64 U.S. Championship 11–0, the only perfect score in the tournament’s history. Footage from I’ve Got a Secret shows him standing awkwardly next to Gary Moore, wearing a plaid shirt and jeans, with a newspaper proclaiming, “Teen-ager’s Strategy Defeats All Comers!” Did this strategy, asks panelist Dick Clark, “make people happy?” The boy ducks his head and offers a joke as well as a brief truth: “It made me happy,” earning applause and a shot of Dick Clark nodding in approval.
As Bobby Fischer Against the World shows, young Fischer won all manner of accolades with chess. His mother Regina—something of a mystery herself, with an FBI file owing to suspicions that she was a Communist spy—appears intermittently, in photos and footage and other people’s opinions. On one hand, she saw chess as unserious, according to Anthony Saidy, telling her son that after he was done playing, “You can start your life, do something important.” On another hand, she also encouraged Bobby to be paid for his work and to appear on TV (“She really wanted him to get publicity”), such that the youngster would play 20 games at once, walking from board to board as his opponents fell away, unable to keep up with him.
The film doesn’t pretend to explain Fischer’s obviously unusual and strained relationship with Regina, though it has interviewees noting that at 16, he told her to move out of their Brooklyn apartment, and also, that she abandoned him. Fischer as a young man seems resilient, immersed in chess as an escape and a respite.
In this, he excelled, of course. The film follows his most famous match, the 1972 world championship contest with Boris Spassky, noting Fischer’s bad behavior and Spassky’s admirable patience and grace. A comment from Henry Kissinger, who reportedly called Fischer to encourage him to compete, suggests a context for the champion’s self-image, as it meshed with that of the Cold-Warring U.S., or at least the men who inflated themselves in that war, like Kissinger: “The Soviets had been winning the tournaments,” he says, “I thought it would be good for America, for democracy to have an American winner.” Concerns about Fischer’s arrogance under such circumstances seem a little naïve.
In order to represent his nation, perhaps, in this and other tournaments, Fischer trained like an athlete—at least for TV cameras—with Harry Sneider (later Fischer’s associate in the Worldwide Church of God), Fischer appears on stationary bikes, holding his breath underwater, lifting weights, and doing pushups in his apartment with Jack LaLanne on a small television in the corner. “Championship chess,” intones Mike Wallace for a CBS piece on Fischer, “is more than just a test of mind and will, it is a test of physical endurance too.” Indeed.
The glimpses of Fischer’s “monastic life” don’t allow for much psychological digging, and his performances at chess contests—in particular the Spassky showdown—don’t reveal his inner workings, only that they seem profound. Chess champion Larry Evans notes that Fischer’s own behavior could be taxing for his friends, but also understandable as part of his genius. “In these days, he was unusual, but he hadn’t gone off the deep end yet.” Fischer’s going off that end is now notorious: he became loudly anti-Semitic (the film includes a clip from the infamous press conference where Jeremy Schapp calls him out) and anti-U.S. Following 9/11, he announced in a radio interview, “This is all wonderful news… It’s time for the U.S. to get its head kicked in,” at which point the Bush Administration made sure Fischer’s own life—that is, his immigration status—was troubled, leading to Fischer’s exile and/or residence in Iceland.
While Fischer’s late public performances were notably obnoxious and earned as much vitriol as his early chess brilliance did accolades, the film maintains an intelligent resistance to judgment. His pronouncements in front of cameras and for journalists were just that, pronouncements for audiences. If Fischer was insane, he saw the world as such: “How fucked up the world is. That’s a form of insanity,” he tells an interviewer. It’s hard to disagree, but it’s almost harder to fathom his perspective, at that moment, his precise point of reference or his self-understanding.
Frustrating and perplexing, he’s an imperfect subject, never to be sorted out. Kári Stefánsson, a neurologist who spent time with Fischer in Iceland, alludes to the problem of definitions, of assessments with limited frameworks—which may be the business of documentary, which can only render subjects in brief, can only gesture towards comprehension. “Most of us,” Stefánsson says, “think within a relative amount of boundaries. But in a case where an individual manages to get out of the box, those are the people who make new discoveries, those are the creative people. But occasionally it is difficult to get back into the box.” Outside it, Fischer seems impossible. And the film doesn’t smooth that over, only makes it apparent, part of its own structure, its reflections on the world that made and continues to judge Fischer. Stefánsson recalls that he finally turned Fischer away, unable to argue with him any more, about Jews or the United States or nuclear proliferation. “His genius and his illness,” the doctor says, “are joined at the hip.” And in this at least, Fischer is not alone.