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'Bobby Fischer Against the World' is a documentary feature exploring the tragic and bizarre life of the late chess master Bobby Fischer. The drama of Bobby Fischer's career was undeniable, from his troubled childhood, to his rock star status as World Champion and Cold War icon, to his life as a fugitive on the run. This film explores one of the most infamous and mysterious characters of the 20th century. Written by
I don't consider myself to be a genius at chess. I consider myself more to be a genius who just happens to play chess, understand? I could be doing, and I can do any number of other things, you know?
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There is a telling scene in Liz Garbus's documentary of Bobby Fischer's life that takes place in Reykjavik the morning after he has beaten Soviet Boris Spassky to win the world championship. "Something inside me has changed", he tells a reporter. Indeed. Although his insane ravings about "the Jews", familiar to the audience even before the movie starts, were still years in the future, Garbus leaves little doubt that the seeds of Fischer's paranoia started the moment he won the title. And, as we are shown by Garbus's extraordinary use of historical footage and photographs, those seeds would take root in a psyche scarred irreparably by the life-long pursuit to be champion. In an earlier scene, Bobby recounts to an interviewer how he has wanted to be World Chess Champion "since I was seven years old". He never knew that there might be other goals in life. This fine and moving film is the story, then, of how, and at what cost, Bobby Fischer finally got his wish.
Garbus's formula is a standard one but succeeds brilliantly here. She juxtaposes archival footage and still photos (much of which, I believe, has never been shown publicly before) with contemporary interviews of many of the key players from Fischer's two-decade pursuit of the title. These individuals - fellow chess players (several of whom were his boyhood friends), tournament organizers, journalists, even his bodyguard - were all members of the small cadre of people that Bobby allowed into his life. Many were even part of his inner circle at Reykjavik. To a person, then, the interviewees were uniquely qualified to share their recollections of Bobby. But, beyond that, they had been positioned to gain some understanding of Bobby. In this film, they share that understanding, or at least their attempts at understanding, of who Bobby Fischer was, and more importantly, why he was that way.
One can only try to imagine the monumental effort required by Garbus to convince them to appear on camera. That she was even able to get Henry Kissinger (now a heavyweight in more ways than one) speaks volumes about her credibility. Kissinger's presence in the film is only one reminder of what was at stake in Reykjavik. Garbus reminds us that this was war: US versus the USSR, capitalism versus communism, freedom versus oppression, each could have been used to describe the battle. But in the end, the only one that really mattered was the title Garbus chose for her work: Bobby Fischer against the World.
Garbus filmed most of the interviews against stunning backdrops of wood-paneled libraries and polished marble floors. In that way she provides quite a contrast for some of the interviewees with their rumpled, 'haven't shaved in three days' look. By doing so, she heightens their humanity, and their humility. Bobby, by contrast, throughout the film, in his words and by his actions, only serves to confirm that he may not have had much of either.
Chess grandmasters Larry Evans and Anthony Saidy, who both knew Bobby since he was a little boy, are not just particularly articulate and insightful, but are also fonts of interesting 'Bobby facts'. Saidy tells us that when Bobby decided to camp out at Saidy's parents' home to avoid the press in the weeks leading up to the World Championship, Saidy's father was dying of cancer. "Bobby, about you staying with us, my dad is sick with cancer". "It's okay, I don't mind", replied the only slightly self absorbed Fischer.
Many of the interviews are with Europeans - Icelanders, Russians, Germans - and all reinforce how impressive it is to hear someone speak fluently in a language other than their native tongue. One has no doubts that their memories and minds must also be sharp. In this context, it is perhaps ironic that LIFE photographer and Scotsman Harry Benson's humanizing photos of Bobby, shown prominently on screen while he speaks, need no words to tell us all we need to know.
Two segments are, each, extraordinary. Saemi Parsson who was Bobby's bodyguard in Reykjavik tells the camera how, after not hearing a word from Bobby in 22 years ("not a peep"), he received the imprisoned Bobby's frantic phone call from Japan (the Japanese had detained Fischer at the request of the US). That Bobby chose to call Parsson, is not quite the correct statement. Rather, that Bobby had no one to call but Parsson seems closer to the truth. We are reminded by this episode that Bobby, by then, was not only stateless, but had severed all relationships with his family and friends. He was alone in more ways than one. The other segment is priceless and is comprised of a faded ABC Wide World of Sports TV special featuring noted sports artist LeRoy Neiman. Neiman, who expected to be "bored to pieces" by the match in Reykjavik draws Fischer as a matador skewering the hapless Spassky! But, can you imagine? ABC's Wide World of Sports? For chess? Such was the impact of Robert James Fischer.
Immediately after beating Spassky, Fischer began his life of seclusion. It may have been even sadder that he also effectively stopped playing chess at the same time, at age 29. All of us are familiar with Fischer's increasingly bizarre post-Reykjavik antics. Sometimes attributed to eccentricity, Garbus makes no secret that she believes Bobby's behaviour was a product of mental illness. Through the images and words of her film, she leaves no other way to label Bobby's paranoia and psychotic pronouncements. She puts the proof right there, in the flickering of a projector, for all to see. We wish it weren't so.
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