Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Chess Reviews: 194

Me & Bobby Fischer
A film by Fridrik Gudmundsson

When Bobby Fischer Against the World was released at the cinema in 2011, it reignited discussions regarding the controversies and bittersweet memories of the eccentric World Champion. Even to long-term Fischer watchers, the film had so much of interest it was impossible to ignore.

Yet there was already another Fischer documentary available, standing in the shadows. The range of Me & Bobby Fischer is somewhat limited in comparison to the more famous of the two films. The bulk of it focuses on the extraordinary efforts of Saemi Palsson (Fischer’s bodyguard during the 1972 match) and the RJF Association to rescue Fischer from his spell of captivity in a Japanese police cell and his very uncertain future and his subsequent life – and endgame - in Iceland.

There’s historical footage of the 1972 Reykjavik match, which is concentrated at the start of the film. Some of it was new to me. Some of it is typical Fischer. After being presented with his gold medal by FIDE President Max Euwe at the official ceremony, Fischer eagerly takes it from its box to examine it. Clearly disappointed and confused, he cuts across Euwe’s presentation by asking, ‘Where’s my name? It should have my name, you know?’ Euwe rescues the difficult moment with a little joke. ‘We didn’t know it!’ Fischer smiles but still looks confused as he stands and waits for the orchestra to finish playing the American national anthem.

We then see some extraordinary footage of Saemi Palsson - a.k.a Saemi Rock – giving a virtuoso performance of dancing to rock music (before the 1972 match). It is quite extraordinary to see such a big man dancing so well!

The film's style of presentation is very different from the very user-friendly, fully narrated Bobby Fischer Against the World. Me & Bobby Fischer adopts a much more fly on the wall approach, putting the viewer directly into the story. Occasional explanatory captions appear on the screen, but the film expects a lot from the viewer, certainly in terms of pre-knowledge of the Fischer story.

There’s footage of meetings, phone calls and travelling around Japan as numerous people do their best to free Fischer from his incarceration. At times, things look desperate but then the feeling of positivity steadily grows as it seems that the red tape is finally being cut. Optimism sores. Maybe Fischer will even play for Iceland in the Olympiads…?

And then suddenly, half way through the film, the waiting is over and Fischer appears. His heavy beard and tramp-like appearance creates a shocking impression, even now, when it should no longer be such a surprise.

Whisked away from plane to car, we see a Fischer who should be exhausted but instead talks through the night drive with a tired yet very tolerant Palsson. The conversation switches from Fischer’s tales of his arrest to more relaxed matters, such as Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. Fischer even sings some Dean Martin songs, followed by some Elvis Presley. He seems to be relaxing, but his customary controversy is never far beneath the surface and anti-Semitic comments bubble over at regular intervals.

Life with Fischer in Iceland wasn't quite as the rescue team expected it to be. There are scenes of an obsessed Fischer ranting about the same old fascinations as he does outwardly normal things, such as taking a stroll through the streets and eating a meal in a cafe. He comes across as a man who never switches off, making him virtually impossible to get to know and, frankly, embarrassing company.

When Fischer talks, he doesn’t like interruptions. He states everything as solid fact and is very dismissive of other viewpoints. He doesn’t like debating and claims that those who do have been to college to learn ‘how to superficially win an argument’ using nothing but ‘…debating society tricks.’ If anyone tries to side track him, he will throw in a few impatient and token responses of ‘yeah, yeah…yeah’ before seizing the earliest opportunity to return to his favourite topics: atom bombs, Jews and prearranged games.

He does occasionally talk about chess. He rather surprisingly agrees to be interviewed on the plane to Iceland and one question asks directly about whether or not he has any regrets about not defending his title in 1975. It’s a clash of perspectives. Fischer is adamant that the problem was that Karpov refused to play him, despite setting the challenger ‘…absolutely fair conditions; ridiculously fair conditions.’ Anything else, he says, is ‘all lies.’ 

He justifies his conditions by comparing them with the 1927 Capablanca v Alekhine match. Alekhine had to win by at least 6-4 to take the title; 5-5 would have left the Cuban on the chess throne. Fischer points out that under his proposed match rules, any challenger would have to lose nine times before his title dream was extinguished, making it much fairer than the 1927 match which ‘…nobody complained about.’ (In fact the tough conditions imposed on Alekhine did have an effect on the future of the World Championship and definitely contributed to the lack of a rematch for Capablanca.)

Fischer tolerates no further discussion on that part of his life and is eager – as ever – to return to the safety of his specialised subjects. ‘Let’s get back to this prearrangement, OK?’ It leads to the familiar rant against Karpov and Kasparov and how they supposedly prearranged all of their match games. Fischer claims that it’s now the top priority in modern chess. His list of the three most important things looks like this:

1) Prearrangement

2) Memorisation

3) Creativity

‘Anyone can analyse my voice and see I’m telling the truth’.
And if the truth was acknowledged, ‘…you’d understand what a rotten game chess is’. 

Given his (in)famous earlier connections with religion, an interviewer  asks him: 'Is there a God somewhere?' He is quick to respond: 'I’m not into religion at all right now, no. I think all the Holy books are bunk.'

The DVD extras are well worth watching. Running at 125 minutes, they offer extended cuts of the feature material. It sheds even more light on Fischer’s state of mind and how far his paranoia reached. He even brings Michael Jackson (‘I think he’s a very nice person’) into the story, claiming he was victimised due to a supposed Jewish reference in a song, which led directly to the child molestation charges as a form of punishment. The plastic surgery wasn’t Jackson’s fault either, according to Fischer, because as Jackson was ‘…mentally and emotionally ill’ then ‘…doctors had no right to do this to him.’ Ironically, of course, Fischer’s refusal to allow doctors to treat him contributed to his own very painful death.

It's a tragic story, of course. This film will appeal to all Fischer fans, but the general viewing public will find it heavier going. At times, it comes across as a rough cut, awaiting the editing stage. However, I found it to be a fascinating account of a very strange period of Fischer's life and which holds the attention even on repeated viewings.

More information - including ordering details - can be found on the official website.


Collins said...

Hey Sean, Mr Collins here again. What grade are you playing at these days? I've started playing for Wimbledon and my league form suggests I'm playing around 165 currently (not bad after a few months back, 200 here we come!). My efforts to incorporate more Fischer into my game are failing, still very Karpovian squeeze style! I would love a rematch with my old coach - where are you playing these days? If you're a member of I'm on there as well - how about a game for old times sake?!

Sean Marsh said...

Mr Collins!

Good to hear from you. Your Wombling chess grade is indeed impressive.

Alas, I have no spare time to actually play serious chess at the moment. Real life is keeping me very busy.

You should enter the London Chess Classic (Open section) next December and I'll be able to watch you and your English Opening in action once again.