Thursday, February 23, 2012

Movie Review: Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011)


I was going to write two separate articles tonight until I realized they were about the same thing. I was going to compose a review of the HBO documentary Bobby Fisher Against the World and another exploring Gary Glitter's 1972 glam rock/stadium chant classic "Rock and Roll" (Parts 1 and 2). Then I realized that I had exactly the same feelings on both Fischer's and Glitter's legacies. (It also didn't hurt that "Rock and Roll" is featured in the film.)
Bobby Fischer Against the World is a sweeping look the life of arguable the greatest, and somewhat less arguably, the most controversial chess player in the history of the sport. At the height of his powers in 1972, he was one of the most famous people in the world after defeating Boris Spassky for the World Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Meanwhile, 1,173 miles away in England that very same year, Gary Glitter's debut single "Rock and Roll" (Parts 1 and 2) began burning up the charts. Composed of one parts instrumental track and the other half an echo-y homage to the roots of the genre with which it shares its title, it would soon become a staple of sporting arenas across the globe. Interestingly enough, the vocal portion was the more popular of two in France, while the instrumental track was the winner in the U.S. and U.K. markets.

The years after Fischer's win were fraught to say the least. In 1975 he forfeited his title to Anatoly Karpov after organizers wouldn't agree to a patently unfair scoring system in which Fischer would retain his title if the score ended up being 9-9 (meaning Karpov would have had to win 10 games to eight to defeat Fischer.) Six years later he was arrested in Pasadena, Calif. after he allegedly fit the description of a bank robbery suspect. In 1992, after winning a rematch with Spassky in Yugoslavia, Fischer was forced to expatriate for the rest of his life because of a U.S. embargo on sporting events in the country. This event ignited Fischer's anti-American and anti-Semitic railings (despite his Jewish ancestry), culminating in a complete meltdown following the September 11th attacks. He subsequently wrote a letter to Osama bin Laden which began:
Dear Mr. Osama bin Laden allow me to introduce myself. I am Bobby Fischer, the World Chess Champion. First of all you should know that I share your hatred of the murderous bandit state of "Israel" and its chief backer the Jew-controlled U.S.A. also know [sic] as the "Jewnited States" or "Israel West." We also have something else in common: We are both fugitives from the U.S. "justice" system.
Fischer spent his final days in Iceland, the scene of his historic match, dying of an otherwise completely treatable disease.
Likewise, Gary Glitter would never reach the heights of his former glory. Far from it. Glitter's name has now become synonymous with child pornography and pedophilia. His career came to an end in 1997 when his computer was brought into a PC World store for repair. The technicians found pictures of children in compromising positions. He then spent four months in a British prison. Following his release he sailed off into the sunset on his yacht, stopping at locations across the globe before finally dropping anchor in Cambodia. Then, in 2005, he was very nearly executed by firing squad in Vietnam after being found guilty of child molestation. Instead he was deported and somehow got away with only compensating the victim's families with $315 each. He then returned to the U.K. where he will have to spend the rest of his life as a registered sex offender.
I don't know much about chess. I know which pieces move in what directions. I've played before. I don't think I've won more than I've lost. I briefly considered downloading a chess app so I could practice on my iPhone after watching this documentary. That's pretty much where my experience with chess comes to an end.
But from watching this movie and hearing those who knew him and know the sport, his mastery was astonishing. His talent operating at such a high level, he had to create a new form of chess to just maintain his interest. The variation, Chess960, uses randomized starting positions making memorization of moves and strategies obsolete. As Dick Cavett put it in a New York Times article following Fischer's death in 2008:
Among this year’s worst news, for me, was the death of Bobby Fischer. Telling a friend this, I got, “Are you out of your bloody mind? He was a Nazi-praising raving lunatic and anti-Semite. Death is too good for him.” He did, indeed, become all that. But none of it describes the man I knew. Towering genius, riches, international fame and a far from normal childhood might be too heady a mix for anyone to handle. For him they proved fatal. I’m still sad about his death. In our three encounters on my late-night show, I became quite fond of him.
I could say the same for Gary Glitter and his enduring hit "Rock and Roll". Following Glitter's initial outing as a pederast many sports teams that had been playing the song at their events ceased doing so. I'm sure people felt weird about cheering for their team using this chant after knowing what the author was up to in his spare time.
But I don't necessarily feel enjoyment of art and the moral veracity of the artist have to be judged on the same scale. Bobby Fischer is still a chess legend. "Rock and Roll" is still a great song. (I actually like the part with lyrics better, personally.)
That doesn't mean I'd leave any Jewish people or small children in their care, though.

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