Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Searching for Bobby Fischer

"Searching for Bobby Fischer" (Steve Zaillian, 1993) There's an episode from "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" that's more than a bit absurd, but it has one good line in it. It centers around a baseball game among the crew-members, and while Captain Sisko patiently explains the rules to his Security Officer Mr. Worf, he tells the Klingon, "...the important thing isn't who wins, but enjoying the game." Worf looks at him a moment and says, "If that is true, then why do you keep score?"

Can't argue with that logic. Our culture (and not just our sports culture) is suffused with the "Win at all costs" mentality that has broken down our moral fiber. You can't blame
Vince Lombardi alone. One must look at the business class who steal the same "Winning is the only thing" philosophy (and other absurdly inappropriate sports metaphors) to push their paeons to boost profits no matter who gets hurt in the scrimmage (One remembers the tapes of Enron shills guffawing over "granny in California" freezing to death). And there has been the same philosophy in politics as long as there has been politics. We're all about "losing gracefully" in this country. But it seems like "winning gracefully" went out with Christy Mathewson, in favor of the "Ty" Cobb philosophy of play of the spike-and-dance in the end-zone and the smash-dunk in the basket.

And you can't win in this country without crowing you're going to Disneyland.

"Searching for Bobby Fischer" is one of my favorite sports movies. And it's about chess—hardly a sport although you can never say it's not a competition. But the film is very much about sports, as it explores the competitive spirit, and gamesmanship, and being "a good sport," whether you're a winner or a loser. Based on the book by
Fred Waitzkin about his son Josh's aptitude and passion for chess at a young age, and the care and nurturing of a savant, "Searching for Bobby Fischer" sounds like a snoozer (especially given it's about chess!), but it's anything but.

Fred Waitzkin (played by
Joe Mantegna) is a sports-writer, and, like a lot of parents, his pathology is to re-create his glory days through the accomplishments of his child. A series of gifts of sports paraphenalia to son Joshua (Max Pomeranc) goes unloved, but a walk though Washington Square amid its chess-players catches his youngster's eye, and he begins a self-taught exploration of the game, gaining the attention of the trash-talking Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne), who thinks the kid's the "next Bobby Fischer." Good enough for Dad, who puts him in tournaments with other kid chess-players and their anxious fathers (among them David Paymer and William H. Macy), then enrolls him with a chess-master (Ben Kingsley) to improve his game and toughen his resolve. But, Josh' starts to lose, and his Mom (Joan Allen) and teacher (Laura Linney) express concerns that he may be being pushed too hard. Complications...and tough choices...ensue. Raising a kid is not like a chess game. There aren't any rules, and more often than not any child will be a few moves in front of you. And the mistakes are all too evident: there's the reclusive Bobby Fischer, who serves as mythic inspiration and cautionary tale; and there's the kid from the other side, untempered with a killing instinct and a sociopath's glint in his eye.

Zaillian, a gifted script-writer, takes a difficult text of intellect and psychology and makes a rousing film of it, gentle and tough. If he compromises at all, it's that he gets all of Josh's influences in the same room to kibbitz and try to "Obi-Wan Kenobi" winning strategies to him against "The Other," making it feel a bit too much like Luke "embracing the Force" to tag the entry port on the Death Star. But even there, Zaillian tilts it 90° with a move that simultaneously undercuts the suspense but heightens the stakes, while defining character through action and reinforcing the message of the movie. A moment of grace in a graceless world.

And, now, fifteen years after the movie, we know where Bobby Fischer was: criss-crossing the globe with his winnings, settling in those anonymous places by other chess-masters who could stand to be around him. He'd occassionally spew some anti-semitic venom into a world that no longer cared and had turned their back on him. Not that he could see—he'd already turned his back on humanity. He even wrote a congratulatory letter to Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks. And he complained that he hadn't "received one thin dime for the totally exploitative Paramount Pictures 'rip-off' full-length feature film." He died of renal failure January 17, 2008 in Reykjavik, and on specific instructions only a hand-chosen few witnessed his interment. It was yet another "draw" for Fischer, proving once again you can win and lose simultaneously.

Towards the end of his life "Ty" Cobb was asked if there was anything he would have done differently, and he replied, "I'd have had more friends "


John said...

Great film. Did you enjoy the Luzhin Defence?

Yojimbo_5 said...

That's a Robert Ludlum book, isn't it?


Never seen it.

The list ever expands.....