Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Chess in the Movies


Chess in the Movies
The first and only book on chess cinema.


Readers of this blog know that I have an interest in chess in the movies. I tried to organize a "Summer Chess Film Festival" at the Kenilworth Chess Club with some success, resulting at least in very enjoyable showings of "Chess Fever" and "Game Over - Kasparov and the Machine." So it should come as no surprise to you that I had to have Bob Basalla's Chess in the Movies, despite some mixed reviews I had seen by Edward Winter, Jeremy Silman, and British Chess Magazine. The reviews are right: there are some errors and the author admits he has not seen most of the films he documents. But ultimately this is a very enjoyable read and an excellent book to request (or purchase for yourself!) as a holiday gift.

If you are interested in chess and cinema then you must have it since (as far as I know) it is the only book of its kind. There have been websites and articles and various other references. Until now, though, there have been no books. There are at least two excellent listings of chess in film available online, including one by Bill Wall and another titled Chess in the Cinema / Schach in Kino maintained by the Schachklub Giessen (which features a number of photos). And there was a much cited series by Frank Brady titled "Chess in the Cinema" that appeared in Chess Life & Review from 1978-1979. I have the April 1979 article at hand -- in an issue that featured a number of other excellent pieces (ah the grand old days of Chess Life!), including one by Mike Valvo and Ken Thompson on Belle's success at the 1978 Computer Championship.

Basalla has read the Brady articles and cites them often, along with a number of other references. He offers no bibliography of sources, however, despite the fact that most of his information comes second hand and not from his own viewing experience. Of course, it is typical of chess literature to leave out the bibliography! Here, however, it is a glaring and very disappointing omission.

Despite its flaws, Basalla's book is the most complete reference to date, certainly fulfilling his dream to "be one of the 'leading world authorities' on a topic!" I cannot imagine another book like it coming out soon, though his has certainly laid the groundwork for further studies.

Besides its value as a unique reference, it is also a good read and one I have enjoyed perusing at chance moments. When he has seen a film and gets into the description, Basalla's writing and analysis are both insightful and funny. Of the brief chess references in the film "Faculty" (1998), for example, he writes: "...Casey's dad (Chris MacDonald) informs his son (Elijah Wood) that certain 'extracurriculars' must stop until his grades improve. 'Sorry pal, no more flogging the bishop,' he says. Dad is talking about chess, isn't he?" (128). Or his note on "Eroticon" (1929): "The earliest example I know of that unlikely but popular staged chess ploy, the check to one's king covered by a move that immediately delivers mate" (124). When chess positions can be reconstructed, he gives us a diagram and analysis -- and, where possible, the game or study reference. Where the board is set up wrong (which it seems to be about half the time) he tells us that too. He is the master of the small detail.

The chief pleasure of reading the book for me, though, was learning about movies I had not heard about, including "Fresh" (1994) with Samuel L. Jackson, which I completely missed. Or the 1932 Betty Boop cartoon short "Chess-Nuts" which sounds like a must-have. Or "Brainwashed" (1960), "The Bishop Murder Case" (1930), "The Grass Arena" (1991), and "Black and White Like Day or Night" (1978). I could go on and on. If you wade through his many odd chess references in sometimes garbage films, you'll discover a lot of interesting movies that feature chess.

Of course, it would have been good to learn from the author whether any of these films is worth seeing on its own merits. A star-rating system might have been useful. But I suppose he had not seen enough of them himself to provide a rating. My other main criticisms are a lack of bibliography, no photos (especially with the older films such as "Chess Fever" there are no copyright restrictions after all), the fact that he hasn't tried harder to see the movies that are available, the fact that he offers little or no advice on how to track them down ourselves, and -- finally -- the size of the thing. After all, you can't really read it on the train, since it's a bit too big to cart around at 8.5x11 inches and over 400 pages. You'd think he'd have saved a lot by shrinking it down, and maybe that would be worth considering should he come out with a second (corrected and improved!) edition, perhaps with a major publisher (who might provide him the services of a good editorial staff to help clean things up).

If he gets the encouragement of a publisher, perhaps he'd also get out to see more of these films himself. Winter, for instance, is critical of Basalla for not saying more about the 1987 Cuban / Soviet film "Capablanca," which is available on video (and one I'll have to get). Even a short search on Google turns up more info than Basalla gives, including a cast list at IMDb and photos from a Russian site. This certainly looks like a movie I'd want to have, but I wish he had more information (including a review of its quality) to let me know if it were really worth tracking down.

Well, reading over this review, I'm surprised to find that I'm still recommending this book! Beggars can't be choosers is all I can say! Since none of us have had the time to compile the valuable information that Basalla offers, we should just accept it for what it is: a flawed but wonderful effort by a "dentist, chess guy, and film buff" (as the back cover tells us). Get it and try to look on the bright side: if you encourage him enough, he might come out with a second edition some day!

1 comment:

Michael Goeller said...

Rereading this review, it is ridiculous how frequently I suggest that the author has not seen the films he reviews -- when, in fact, he had! Oh well.