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Sun, 29 Nov 2009
Two and a half years ago, I posted my top 8 movie list in this space. I'm proud to say that nothing in the intervening years has changed my opinion of any of my all time favorite films. There have been some good new films, Slumdog Millionaire was pretty darn good, but no new film has surpassed any of my old picks. I still stand by the radix of my list as written in 2007.
Over those two and a half years, I have posted essays that explain my appreciation for most of the films on that list; however, two of the eight favorite films still have not been covered thus far. The two films in question are: Searching for Bobby Fischer and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
That I left these two for last should not imply they are of lesser quality. I feel they are the equal of any other film on the list. In fact, with the Iron Writers term drawing to a close, swift action is needed lest I disparage these excellent films further and leave a critical life's task undone. Thus my aim, today, is to fill the gap in my movie review list.
Searching for Bobby Fischer
This is a great film on its own merit, but first and foremost, it's a subjectively sentimental favorite for me. The origin of this personal sentiment is easy to find in my past. I, like Rich Stelt, misspent a good amount of my youth playing chess. In fact, Rich and I lived somewhat parallel lives in this regard if his fine essay on the topic is any indication.
Who can forget the 1972 Shelby Lyman broadcasts on PBS!? I can't. In fact, it doesn't feel like overstating if I claim that these broadcasts were a deeply addictive drug to anyone with half a brain -- a demi-brain I apparently possessed -- as I was hooked instantly and couldn't tear myself away. Watching and joining in with Lyman's gushing enthusiasm for the intricate and subtle details of these great games was, to me, as seductive as a dose of crack, and the priceless intellectual high that came along with every fresh discovery was equal the the cheap rush from any concentrated opiate. In our innocence, we were ripe to be swept away. Once we were hooked, we couldn't get enough. I've never recovered.
Fortunately, the experience was good for us -- for me. I stand by that. Some people may question the value of spending ones days in intense and sustained mental effort expended on a "mere game". I don't. I believe that the practice of being clever is a good thing -- good in and of itself, whatever the object.
In what I see as a benevolent addiction, I learned some things about the game of chess, but more importantly, I began to learn about my own capacity for deep, analytical thought. Without witnessing this historic match, these intellectual lessons are something I wouldn't have learned for decades (if ever). The Lyman broadcasts took me to a new level as a thinking human.
Being a budding, teen-age chess enthusiast during the Fischer-Spassky matches was one of those Malcolm Gladwell Outliers moments, to be sure. We form an exclusive club, those of us that who came of intellectual age that summer. I'm not sure what unique long term Outlier benefits our exclusive membership has brought us, but as I remember the short run, it was a blast.Searching for Bobby Fischer connects directly my nostalgia for this profound personal moment. It's obvious that Fred Waitzkin, who wrote the book from direct experience, and Steven Zaillian, who directed the film and wrote the screenplay, must be members of the exclusive Fischer-Spassky-Lyman club, too. They nail the feeling and that's sufficient proof. Who else but someone who had been there could get it right? Who else would care?
The film touches me so deeply I can't watch the first 10 minutes without tears streaming down my face. In this way, it is similar to Almost Famous, helping me re-experience, if just for a brief time, the powerful exuberance of youth that once filled me.
Of course, I fully realize that Searching for Bobby Fischer is a formula sports flick. I don't begrudge formula -- formulas are popular because they work. Searching for Bobby Fischer has all the cliches: the direction of a young prodigy is whipsawed between the his hip, street-wise, from the gut, mentor Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne's other great cinema performance) and the classical, tough minded, teacher Bruce Pandolfini (played far tougher by Ben Kingsley that the real-world easy going Pandolfini deserved). There are the cliche "human priority" squabbles and a foreboding nemesis on the horizon: another strong, child player who, we all know, must be faced in the final reel. Yes, as expected, our young hero starts out strong, then struggles, makes cliche choices, and, ultimately, rallies to win the big match against that other kid as all the other characters are flattened into stock members of a chorus on the sidelines.
But many of the scenes that Waitzkin and Zaillian use to flesh out the hackneyed sports-flick formula are brilliant masterpieces that allow us to glimpse the raw power of youthful intellectual might. This is the second aspect that makes the film special to me. We stand in awe. We aren't seeing mere physical prowess. The scenes that illustrate Josh Waitzkin's chess ability are of a different category than the usual "this kid is good" scenes found in a sports movie. They are different than Hobbs striking out the Whammer in The Natural, different than Abrahams' record run around the quad in Chariots of Fire, different than Maggie Fitzgerald's exceptional boxing in Million Dollar Baby. They are different and much much more. This is intellectual might
Although willing to depict intellectual triumph in the protagonist, the film is not perfect in this regard. Specifically, it avoids being chess-game technical. One of the beauties of the Lyman broadcasts was how he made the technical aspects of chess accessible to those of us willing to think along with the play.
That Searching for Bobby Fischer did not choose to include anything technical allowed the mass market a bigger foothold into the narrative, but, in my opinion, makes the film less than it could have been. The best sports movies have some real play on screen for those familiar with the sport to appreciate. Depicting real technical play on screen is why Major League is a better film than The Natural or Field of Dreams.
But I can forgive this flaw because appreciation of pure intellectual triumph is so rare in cinema, and because the film depicts intellectual triumph without a downside. We don't quite see the same thing in A Beautiful Mind or in Good Will Hunting. Those films depict the internal battles of brilliant men that pay a grave price for their genius. In contrast, Josh, the chess playing child prodigy in this film, is well balanced. He isn't a tortured genius. He isn't compensating for some greater weakness. We can't use a sour grapes argument here. The kid is simply exceptional.
Two scenes in the film stand out as uniquely illustrative of this point. One scene is when Josh's Dad has a conversation with Josh's teacher. The teacher is concerned that obsession with some childish "game" might not be the best thing for Josh. In saying this, she represents the intellectual proletariat, uncomfortable that Josh is hoarding the means on cognitive production.
Josh's Dad, played flawlessly by Joe Mantegna, says this:
"He's better at this than I've ever been at anything in my life. He's better at this than you'll ever be, at anything. My son has a gift. He has a gift, and when you acknowledge that, then maybe we will have something to talk about."
Go get 'em, Dad! As parents we hear rhetoric from schools about supporting gifted students, yet the reality of "gifted support" is more akin to punishment-for-excellence than any kind of recognition or acknowledgment of their ability. Smart kids may need nurturing or mentoring, but they don't need extra homework. Sadly, extra homework is typically what they get -- at best. You'd have to be stupid to be smart in most schools.
I'm not sure why this is. I don't want to go all Ayn Rand on you in this essay, but maybe if somebody is acknowledged as smart, that means everybody else is implicitly dumb and that can't stand, politically. Quoting from another film that is an ode to exceptionalism, The Incredibles, if everyone is special, no one is.
Sports exceptionalism is somehow more mass market accessible than intellectual exceptionalism. Ordinary people are not threatened by the home run hitter or strike out pitcher. But what about the college professor? Mass market right-wing talk shows love to heap scorn on the cognitive elite. Those of us with mental skills labor with our heads down. Should the limelight reach us, we are furtive with our work, fearing it be misinterpreted by the witch hunters. Most smart people know it's stupid to seek attention, especially these days, where sound bite journalism is much more likely to depict our labors unfairly than otherwise.
Another memorable scene in Searching for Bobby Fischer that is unashamed to show mental prowess depicts a chess game between Josh and his dad. The father is in deep concentration, straining every mental muscle in an effort to win the game. Josh is distracted, playing without the slightest strain, impatiently waiting for his Dad to give up so they can go out to a dealer to buy baseball cards.
After a few moves, with the Dad's mental efforts redoubling each turn, Josh asks, "Can we go to the dealer now?"
"But the game's not over yet," says his Dad.
"Yes it is," replies Josh.
This is intellectual truth served cold. Josh delivers his line with no emotion. It's pure fact. He doesn't dumb the truth down for his Dad, or anybody. It's not a question of being a "good sport". The game is over. It is an objective fact. All acolytes of the truth appreciate the cold facts.
I played chess with my Dad when I was young. He never "let me win". He always played all out. So did I. I remember the first time I beat my Dad at chess. It was a turning point. Prior to that day, my Dad won every game. After that day, he never beat me again. Chess is like that. It's a sharp edge of interpersonal mental comparison. But I didn't take away any Oedipian angst from that watershed moment. Rather, both of us were proud of my achievement and both of us thought more of the other guy after that game.
This brings up another fine pro-Dad moment from this film. As my previous reviews show, I treasure films that depict Dads that bear all their responsibilities as true Dads, but not one extra responsibility. Earlier I reviewed Ulee's Gold, my favorite in this category, But Searching for Bobby Fischer has a top-shelf Dad character who isn't about to sign up for any extra guilt. Not for nothing.
As tension mounts in the film, there's a moment when Mom delivers a super-cliche line: "[Your son] is not afraid of losing. He's afraid of losing your love." Oh dear me, is the film spiraling into pop-psychology drivel? Are we to witness some sensitive new-age guy gratuitous acceptance of misplaced guilt? How many crappy sports films featuring Dads and sons have a line exactly like that one, or the equivalent. Can't you see the trailer text? A young boy learns that there's something more important than winning; it makes me want to barf.
But wait. Mom follows up this cliche first-pitch called strike with a curve ball that doesn't quite break and hangs over the heart of the plate when she asks Dad: "How many ball players grow up afraid of losing their fathers' love every time they come up to the plate?"
Dad hits it out.
"All of them!"
Sorry Mom. More truth served cold. Sometimes there isn't anything more important than winning. Chess isn't just like life -- chess is life.
The way Josh's success is depicted is the mechanism of this film's biggest strength as it threatens to undermine the message. When the film asks all those trite human priority questions, it starts to lose me. When the film is ultimately unafraid to set those priorities aside and revel in a tax-free intellectual triumph anyway, it wins me back. Yes, Josh is just a boy. Isn't it nice that he likes baseball as well as chess. Oh, the poor dear, how it upsets him to crush his chess opponents mercilessly. But he crushes them anyway. And there's nothing wrong with that.
Chess is life. The man who first taught me the cold, unforgettable truth about intellectual triumph was Bobby Fischer, arguably the best chess player who ever lived. After achieving worldwide fame in his 1972 match with Spassky, Fischer mysteriously disappeared -- a fact noted with significance in the opening sequence of the film.
As Elwood P Dowd points out in Harvey, there are two strategies for going through life. One can be either oh so smart, or oh so pleasant. Pick one. When you pick smart, being oh so pleasant is no longer an available option. If you're really smart, you keep your head down.
Fischer picked smart, and in the limelight could appear to be quite an unpleasant asshole. We all remember his seemingly fickle demands at the Spassky match, where he even forfeited a game (some say two) rather than be "oh so pleasant" about the playing conditions. In 1975 he forfeited his title because of another dispute, and disappeared almost for good.
He emerged from obscurity for a rematch with Spassky in Belgrade twenty years later, beating the man yet again and in the process violated President George H. W. Bush's Executive Order barring US citizens from competing in "sporting events" in Yugoslavia. Fischer publicly spit on the U.S. order forbidding him to play, and thereby became a US outlaw the rest of his life.
Some try to say Fischer was a lunatic plagued by mental illness. I doubt this was so. I think to a large extent the press sensationalized his reclusive exploits. But even if the man was "crazy", why engage in backbiting gossip degrading to the man's intellectual achievements? He was oh so smart. The other option, to be oh so pleasant, was closed to him long ago.
The great chess master died on January 17, 2008. He died from degenerative renal failure in a Reykjavik hospital and was buried in a small church cemetery south of the city. In memory of his life, I re-watched Searching for Bobby Fischer and, as always, cried like a baby.
Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
This film is another formula pic. It's a retelling of the Odyssey -- what can be more formula than a retelling of a famous Greek myth? Otherwise, it has virtually nothing in common with Searching for Bobby Fischer. This isn't the hardball of intellectual exceptionalism. It's a road movie.
I don't know exactly why I like this particular road movie so much. Hope and Crosby did a fine job with them. But whether you know the Odyssey or not, or love The Road to Rio, in my book this is an film that stands head and shoulders above all the other road epics. I'd call it a great film. Maybe it's the best film ever made. Or the worst. Who cares -- it goes on the list.
Personally, I find some of the Hope/Crosby road pics crassly exploitive. For that reason alone, they'd have no chance to make my list. Formula is one thing, but films need to stand on their own merit.
Besides, I've never read the Odyssey and, supposedly, neither have the Coen brothers, who only realized the similarity halfway into the project. That sad lack of classical erudition made no difference to me, or to them -- I loved the film anyway. I love it beyond reason even if yours truly does have the capacity for abstract thought.
Although set in dust-bowl depression times, and the facinating cast of quirky characters move from cataclysmic personal disaster to transcendent personal epiphany, primarily the film is neither plot fiction nor character fiction. I'd call it a tragico-comedic farce and musical. It's also a pretty good film whatever you label it. It's a sepia toned tour de force. The Grapes of Wrath meets Monty Python and The Holy Grail as interpreted by Mark Twain with some help from the bard Homer. Gosh! This is a great film. Oh! My hair!
Maybe the reason I like it so much is because of the computer generated cows placed "in jeopardy" by George "babyface" Nelson. I hear that the synthetically depicted peril of these digitized beasts angered the American Humane Association, which makes the film worth something for just that fact alone.
Or maybe I like it more for the other CG cow floating by during the flood? Or was it Clooney's commentary on the "progress" of New Deal rural electrification. Or was it the majority vote for "yours truly". I don't know. Hells bells! This is a wonderful movie.
This certainly was George Clooney's breakthrough as an comic actor. I never liked his Batman, but in this film, Clooney is inspired and masterful. The portrayal of a bipolar George Nelson by the actor Michael Badalucco was also bloody perfect. And what other man of stage or screen could ever equal John Goodman as Big Dan Teague in his interpretation of the Cyclops Polyphemus, the gigantic one-eyed son of Poseidon -- crushing frogs instead of warriors?
Or the sirens. Ah! the sirens. Tie me to a mast!
Or maybe it's the old timey foggy bottom harmonies. Was there a film ever made with a better soundtrack? Damn! I'm in a tight spot figuring out a coherent argument why I like this film.
Let's get back to rural electrification. There's a great line by Clooney's character:
"Out with the old spiritual mumbo jumbo, the superstitions, and the backward ways. We're gonna see a brave new world where they run everybody a wire and hook us all up to a grid."
Is this a reference to the Culture Wars? Broadband? I certainly think it's something like that. Or even if it isn't some subtle social commentary, it's definitely pretty funny, considering how Clooney is using this rationale to explain their fortuitous delivery from the hands of a lynch party when a valley is flooded as part of the construction of a hydroelectric dam. Not the will of God?
Truly, this film has depth in the most surprising directions. It says a lot, yet says nothing. It never takes itself seriously, like so many comedies. Nor does it make fun of hardship, like so many serious films. Oh Brother, Where Art Thou strikes a golden mean through its thick tapestry of images, songs, and ideas. My hair!