A Complex Mind
As I entered the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, I was told by a very kind security guard to follow the blue ramp. And so I did. Doing so, I came into a largely open, colorful space with padding on the walls and ceiling that made me feel safe and ready to enter the world of American chess player, Bobby Fischer.
Bobby Fischer Against the World, the title of director Liz Garbus’ new documentary, has more to it than meets the eye. It reflects the dichotomy present throughout the film; on the one hand: Fischer, on the other: the world — the two do not mix well.
As the film’s title flashes before the screen, Garbus uses audio of reporters’ descriptions of Fischer as a strange and isolated man. Thus we are introduced to Fischer through a lens of his image-one that was supposedly stubborn, egotistical, combative, and anti-social. We are not let off that easy though.
Liz Garbus takes us into his past, where we see a child who was very much alone and what we are left to assume, lonely – a Fischer with very little to depend on, other than himself. We also see Fischer as the national hero, one that takes on the world as an American champion; the star of the free world.
Fischer was foremost a product of his time; a product from the height of the Cold War, a time when to many, the Soviet Union and the United States were the world. The nightly news, quite comically, begun with news of Fischer, to be followed by that of Henry Kissinger. Kissinger himself regarded Fischer as a tool. As Russian chessmaster and writer, Garry Kasparov, remarked, chess was “ideologically important to pure intellectual superiority” in Russia; this was a battle for hearts and minds.
“There are worse things to be obsessed by than chess,” we are told in the beginning of the film, and then we bear witness to the spread of Bobby’s obsession. In the talk following the screening, between Frank Brady, author of Endgame, and Dylan McClain, chess columnist for The New York Times, McClain stated that “nobody thinks this way,” commenting on the way Fischer played chess, thinking 20 or 30 moves in advance.
“He will not give an inch,” he recalled, alluding to Fischer’s competitive spirit and unwillingness to settle for draws where others might. Fischer had famously stated, “I don’t believe in psychology. I believe in good moves,” which makes us question if that was his downfall. Writer Malcolm Gladwell says in the beginning of the film that genius is about a willingness to sacrifice, but at the end we wonder, was his sanity worth the sacrifice?
As Brady pointed out in the discussion, Fischer thought, “‘my mom was a Democrat. I chose to be a Republican. My mother was Jewish. I’m not. Why can’t I do that?’”
What is painted for us in the film and during the discussion is Fischer as a man who really goes against his whole world, everyone he knows, and everything he is taught. Garbus asks us, “how could a Jewish kid become an anti-Semite?” and shows us that Fischer was a man at war with himself. He had gone from obscurity to a representation of a whole of the free world, a beacon of chess, an eccentric loner, and enemy of the state. But, as the cliché goes, he was his own worst enemy.
He died at 64 with an Icelandic passport, quite ironically, since he was so reluctant to go there. He felt the status of chess could be elevated only if the world champion were to win a larger sum of money and if it was held in a country of greater stature. It was the small nation of Iceland in the end who gave him a passport when it seemed like the entire world had abandoned him.
During the talk, McClain pointed out that Fischer became a criminal not due to the action he took by playing chess during the war in Yugoslavia all through the U.N. embargo, but the larger violation he made in his comments on 9/11, renouncing the United States through his stern denouncement.
What makes this film so fantastic is that it doesn’t matter whether you grew up with Fischer or if this is your first time being introduced to him, by the end, you feel like you knew him. It is sympathetic to Fischer and tells his tale in a very human way. You will empathize with him even when he is ranting about the attacks on 9/11.
Bobby’s last words were “nothing is so healing as the human touch,” and at that point in the film, when I heard it, all the walls I had inside me toward him broke down, and I just wished I could have been there to reach out and touch him or give him a hug.
This is not a romantic tale. But for those who are curious, it is now acknowledged that Fischer did marry a woman in Japan, while he was in prison, in typical Fischer fashion. A woman named Marilyn Young also filed a paternity suit and Fischer did fall in love with a young Hungarian girl who he did want to marry.
“He did want love. He wanted romantic love. He did seek that,” McClain revealed during the discussion.
But this film is not about the seeking of true love but about love in general, and what happens when one goes without it, when one goes against the grain of the world. After all, what this film drives at is that any one of us could be Fischer. The genius and the madman are two extremes of the same person but inside each of us there are bits of both. We question what lies deep within us, if we could develop such thought and paranoia as well, but we also question if we can have the resolve that Fischer had and the strength that he showed.
In that sense, the film is a narrative of an underdog, and we, as Americans, love a good underdog story. Still, this not a tale of happy endings, it is a tale of one person’s extraordinary struggle in this world.