On chess as a window to the soul.

On chess as a window to the soul.

chessI loved chess growing up, enough that I always felt a shiver of pleasure when games appeared in novels.  Like the pre-felo de se game in Love in the Time of Cholera, the grim filial sacrifice in Vonnegut’s “All the King’s Horses,” the entirety of The Defense ...

ompchessIf you also are a fan of chess in art, you’ll definitely want to watch Andrew Bujalski’s brilliant mockumentary Computer Chess.  The film manages to be incredibly entertaining and humorous while addressing big ideas about artificial intelligence, the treatment of women in science, power structures between underlings and their professional superiors, and the difficulty of bridging cognitive gaps between people with different value systems.  With that list of themes, and the film being shot in black & white by shaky handheld cameras, it could’ve so easily been dull and dry… but it’s a blast.

One reason why chess has appeared so often in artistic works is the claim that people reveal their personalities through their playing styles.  I never agreed with this.  Sure, you can play aggressively, you can play cautiously.  The biggest distinction, though, is between playing well or poorly.  And even then, only a small set of moves are available each turn.  With only twenty moves to choose from for the first turn, and hardly ever more than fifty, many of them strategically bad, how much of your personality can you reveal?

goThat’s why I was so excited when I discovered Go.  It’s a rough cultural equivalent to chess, but on any turn there are a much wider range of options that seem to be strategically reasonable (I say “seem to be,” because, unlike with chess, computers still can’t beat the best Go players, so we don’t have a clear algorithmic understanding to identify the best moves).

At the beginning of a game of Go, there are hundreds of options to choose from for each move.  And, unlike with chess, there’s no certainty that a slightly more aggressive move, or a slightly more timid one — setting a piece down very near an opponent’s, or father away — is better or worse than the other options.  Toward the beginning of the game, at least, your personality is less likely to be squelched by strategic constraints.

I figured that this abundance of choices meant games of Go would be more effective literary devices than chess games.  So far, though, I haven’t come across literary Go games that I’ve enjoyed as much as those chess matches cited above.  I’ve only read a few, though; maybe ones that’ll floor me are out there somewhere.

But, right, this essay is supposed to be about chess, not Go.  Because I eventually realized that chess does reveal the players’ personalities… as long as they’re not following the rules.  Consider this monologue from Burroughs’s Queer (a bit of context that might help explain the speaker’s casual racism: Queer is, in my opinion, the best novel about unrequited love.  The speaker is trying, and failing, to get the man he loves to pay attention to him.  His aggrieved petulance and insobriety lead him to tell increasingly vicious, mean-spirited stories):

Art by Christiaan Tonnis.
Art by Christiaan Tonnis.

“I was reading up on chess.  Arabs invented it, and I’m not surprised.  Nobody can sit like an Arab.  The classical Arab chess game was simply a sitting contest.  When both contestants starved to death it was a stalemate.”  Lee paused and took a long drink.

“During the Baroque period of chess the practice of harrying your opponent with some annoying mannerism came into general use.  Some players used dental floss, others cracked their joints or blew saliva bubbles.  The method was constantly developed.  In the 1917 match at Baghdad, the Arab Arachnid Khayam defeated the German master Kurt Schlemiel by humming ‘I’ll Be Around When You’re Gone’ forty-thousand times, and each time reaching his hand towards the board as if he intended to make a move.  Schlemiel went into convulsions finally.

“Did you ever have the good fortune to see the Italian master Tetrazzini perform?”  Lee lit Mary’s cigarette.  “I say ‘perform’ advisedly, because he was a great showman, and like all showmen, not above charlatanism and at times downright trickery.  Sometimes he used smoke screens to hide his maneuvers from the opposition — I mean literal smoke screens, of course.  He had a corps of trained idiots who would rush in at a given signal and eat all the pieces.  With defeat staring him in the face — as it often did, because actually he knew nothing of chess but the rules and wasn’t too sure of those — he would leap up yelling, ‘You cheap bastard!  I saw you palm that queen!’ and ram a broken teacup into his opponent’s face.  In 1922 he was rid out of Prague on a rail.  The next time I saw Tetrazzini was in the Upper Ubangi.  A complete wreck.  Peddling unlicensed condoms.  That was the year of the rinderpest, when everything died, even the hyenas.”

Chess played that way clearly reveals the players’ personalities.  They’re no longer shackled by strategic constraints — the apparent lawlessness of the game resembles Calvinball more than traditional chess.

maThe chess game in Michal Ajvaz’s The Other City has a similar emphasis on personality over rules.  The Other City is a beautiful novel, and I think this passage is fairly representative of what I love about it.  Dream logic that is far enough removed from traditional reality that we expect weirdness, but not so weird as to be incomprehensible.  A real attention to detail in describing the oft-impossible physical surroundings.  And pervasive horror; this passage is followed by one describing a once-beautiful poet scarred by long use of a typewriter that struck him with poisonous quills each time he pressed the keys.  Even the description of the chess game has real nightmarish properties.  The stakes are high, but the rules are unclear.  Oh, and, many thanks to Gerald Turner for the translation; all translation seems difficult, but recreating this sort of surrealism in another language must’ve been particularly arduous.

The Book of Deserted Gardens speaks of this on the page with the greasy stain from noodle soup left by a scribe of long ago, who took fright when across the sun-drenched page there fell the horned shadow of a monster as it passed through the sleepy and desolate lanes of the city after defeating the aging king at a game of chess on the parched ramparts.  It was played with chessmen of sparkling ice; all that could be heard in the silence was the soft rattle of red and purple gemstones falling in the hour-glass alongside the chessboard; it was the monster’s vengeance for a bygone defeat in a contest beneath the high stone walls of the fortress, on which broke the waves of the nocturnal sea.  The stories do not tell the entire truth — monsters always return: one day, a familiar monster will ring your doorbell too, bearing a chessboard under its arm; it will persuade you to join it in a game of chess and you will be obliged to include in the game the carved figure of a tiger-headed spearman, a piece that moves in irregular, furtive spirals and can stray quite far from the chessboard — even out of the apartment. 

On Boyhood (the film), specifically the eleven seconds between 2:34:11 and 2:34:22.

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Image by Jennifer Gensch on Flickr.

One quick remark before I launch into this essay: I typically type these while N is playing at the YMCA, so I had to take several screenshots of the film before coming here so I could consult them alongside my other notes.  But Apple’s built-in screencapture won’t function if the DVD player is open; I’d never realized.  I wasn’t pleased.  To me, this is analogous to the manufacture of pharmaceuticals with aversive agents.  Doing extra work to intentionally reduce the functionality of a product, in the absence of any safety rationale, seems like a waste of time at best.

Sure, pharmaceutical abuse is a huge problem in the U.S.  But I don’t think that adulterating painkillers with compounds that can cause suffering is the right solution.  If we as a people decided to spend more money on psychiatric interventions, then great!  But spending money to add poisons to medicine, in ways that might harm legitimate users, is pretty crummy.

Apple’s attempt to prevent copyright violation is obviously much less bad.  Nobody’s going to become physically ill.  Just, like me, mildly frustrated.

Luckily the proscription was easy to evade: there’s a brief guide on the website “High School Blows”  that explains how to work around this.  And, right, that is why I wanted to type this preamble to today’s essay.  Because having an active verb that means “to be bad” is great!  I love the simplicity of sentences this offers.  Noun, verb.  Bam!  Two words and you’re done.  You’ve conveyed “The aforementioned thing is a rotten thing.”  And, better yet, you’ve also done it in a way that, linguistically, reveals a measure of political or ideological subversion.  I happily used the verbs “suck” and “blow” this way for years.

I don’t anymore, though.  Writing a book… well, no… it wasn’t until I was re-writing the book several times over… I had to think carefully about each word I was using.  I tried to learn a lot more etymology.  And I’m not keen on the idea of using a word that means, roughly, “is bad because it likely performs oral sex on men.”  The original etymology (circa 1970) was homophobic, and by now oral sex is sufficiently common amongst heterosexuals in the U.S. that you could reasonably interpret these verbs as having a misogynistic subtext as well.  So I no longer use them.

But I really want an action verb that means this!  My current fallback is to say “is rotten” in conversation whenever my mind proffers the verb “sucks,” but this is much less powerful.  If anybody out there has a good word for “is bad,” I’d love to hear it… my casual banter has been suffering for years now!

Okay.  That’s the end of my little diatribe.  Now on to your regularly-scheduled essay, a review of eleven seconds from Boyhood.

CaptureThere’s no dialogue in the segment of Boyhood that I’m planning to review.  To me, that’s a benefit — I felt that much of the film suffered from the fact that the dialogue was realistic to the point of banality.  There are some movies which, by watching them enough times, help you reach a point where you no longer need original thought in order to “converse” with people; you can instead rattle off movie quotes as they seem appropriate (Repo Man comes to mind here, along with several Monty Python movies, several Coen brothers movies).  But there are others, including several that have received very good reviews recently, wherein the dialogue never seems to rise above what a compulsive eavesdropper is likely to hear around town on any given day.

Blue Is the Warmest Color, for instance, had few scenes in which the dialogue felt crisp.  That’s part of why I couldn’t feel invested, especially because the film mainly seemed to convey braggadocio from the director to his audience as regards his manipulation of Adéle Exarchopoulos.  As though the director were saying, this is a human being, sure, but I can make her do whatever I want.  If he wanted another close-up of her eating in order to reinforce a message about her voracious appetites, bam!, he got it.  A close-up of her crying, snot-snerking face puffy and spasming?  Bam!  A voyeuristic scene of her naked frame grinding her pubic bone into an S4-symmetry-operated proxy of herself?  Bam!  And sparkling dialogue only during the scene in which the director refers to his own stand-in as a genius for attempting to depict female desire.

Or, earlier, there was The Dreamers, wherein the dialogue only shimmered when the American exchange student was remarking upon coincidences between the size of a cigarette lighter and the dinner table (which was a great scene, to be fair — “I mean, it really fits anywhere.  Look.  See?  I was noticing that the more you look at everything, this table, the objects on it, the refrigerator, this room, your nose, the world, suddenly you realize that there’s some sort of cosmic harmony of shapes and sizes” — but I felt that the movie’s dialogue never again rose to those heights).

In Boyhood, the only time I felt the dialogue was even trying to be fancy was at the end, when the psilocin-modulated collegians have a brief conversation that reflects back on the nature of the project: “It’s constant, the moment, it’s just… It’s like it’s always right now, you know?”

But even this stab at philosophy falls short of, say, the brief dialogue during the credits of Boxtrolls (which, right, that is a brilliant scene.  Definitely worth seventy seconds of your life).

In fact, most pieces of the film seem to have been done better elsewhere.  For the father figure providing relationship advice I’d substitute Roger Dodger, for the kid interacting with his mother I’d substitute Transamerica, for a lot of the suburban strife and feeling out of place while a seemingly-ordinary childhood drags on I’d substitute David Sedaris’s early memoirs.

The only uniquely memorable set of dialogue, to me, was the speech given by Ethan Hawke in which he admitted that, nope, our world has no elves, but we have other creatures that would sound equally magical and bizarre if not for the fact that we know they exist.  That seemed like pretty good fathering and was a catchy set of lines.

And, sure, it was a very cool special effect to have a single actor play this role as the character ages over a decade, but a lot of the press I read about the film lauded it much more than other films with cool special effects.  In a way, that makes me think of the Matrix movies.  All three of them had cool effects, but I doubt many people ever re-watch the latter two: the cool effects are all those two movies have going for them.  Whereas the first actually has a soul beneath its shiny exterior.

With Boyhood, most of the film doesn’t seem impressive if you take away the special effect.

In fact, my favorite review of the movie as a whole was given to me by a running buddy: “While I was watching it, I kept thinking there was about to be a car accident.  But the accident never came.”  Even though he’d told me that, I too kept expecting a car accident; all those portentous remarks about seatbelts!  And drivers were rarely sober.

Immediately after I finished the film, I sent an email back to him: “Maybe the car wreck happens after the credits, when they’re driving back to campus.”  From the dialogue, it didn’t seem as though they had a sitter; maybe you’d argue that the woman sitting next to the protagonist at the end was not on psilocin because her eyes weren’t dilated, but the protagonist’s weren’t either for that scene.  Doesn’t seem like they loaded up an eyedropper with scopolamine for the verisimilitude.

Still, I was thrilled to be watching the movie for the eleven seconds between 2:34:11 and 2:34:22.  Those are great.  And, you know, maybe that’s enough.  Like, the first time I read Jack Kerouack’s On the Road I spent most of the book thinking it was nothing special… and then I reached this passage:

I was getting ready to go to Mexico when suddenly Denver Doll called me one night and said, “Well, Sal, guess who’s coming to Denver?”  I had no idea.  “He’s on his way already, I got this news from my grapevine.  Dean bought a car and is coming out to join you.”  Suddenly I had a vision of Dean, a burning shuddering frightful Angel, palpitating toward me across the road, approaching like a cloud, with enormous speed, pursuing me like the Shrouded Traveler on the plain, bearing down on me.  I saw his huge face over the plains with the mad, bony purpose and the gleaming eyes; I saw his wings; I saw his old jalopy chariot with thousands of sparking flames shooting out from it; I saw the path it burned over the road; it even made its own road and went over the corn, through cities, destroying bridges, drying rivers.  It came like wrath to the West.  I knew Dean had gone mad again.  There was no chance to send money to either wife if he took all his savings out of the bank and bought a car.  Everything was up, the jig and all.  Behind him charred ruins smoked.  He rushed westward over the groaning and awful continent again, and soon he would arrive.  We made hasty preparations for Dean.  News was that he was going to drive me to Mexico.

“Do you think he’ll let me come along?” asked Stan in awe.

“I’ll talk to him,” I said grimly.  We didn’t know what to expect.  “Where will he sleep?  What’s he going to eat?  Are there any girls for him?”  It was like the imminent arrival of Gargantua; preparations had to be made to widen the gutters of Denver and foreshorten certain laws to fit his suffering bulk and bursting ecstasies.

That last sentence is so incandescently beautiful that I forgave all the excesses that had come prior to it in the book: this beautiful sentence needed the book’s shambling heft to exist.  Without context it looses some of their power; I’m not even sure that passage will seem appropriately beautiful when slapped up on a website like this.  Likewise, it’s possible that the eleven seconds I loved of Boyhood could not have existed without the rest of the movie.

At this point in the film, the protagonist is driving across Texas to attend college: despite anything you may have read about the infantilization of modern college students, this marks his transition from boyhood into adulthood.  The song “Hero” by Family of the Year is playing.  Seems like an excellent choice of music; especially the line “…holding down a job to keep my girl around and maybe buy me some new strings…” just before he opens the passenger side door to his truck in order to retrieve his camera.  Indeed, it’s a scuffless Canon EOS in stark contrast to the battered Toyota he’s driving.  I think the combination of hearing that line and seeing his camera reveals a lot about the kid’s: like the singer, he’s been working in order to afford the tools needed to pursue his art.

In fact, this scene does more to reveal his personality than the vast bulk of the movie.  Lots of kids drink beers when their friends are drinking, lots of people rant about the way modern technology exploits evolutionary quirks of our brains, lots of people (unfortunately) are put in a position of rebelling against too-strict father figures while failing to make a real connection with a yearned-for, insufficiently-strict biological father.  But this scene displays a measure of loneliness and solitude in his pursuit of art, and it changes the way a viewer interprets his earlier dark room conversation when he claimed that he often spent whole weekends out shooting pictures.  This scene lends that statement credibility, and demonstrates what those weekends might have been like.

I do wish, if the kid was meant to be shown developing into an artist, that we’d more often seen him viewing photographs, rather than taking them.  To the best of my recollection, the only photographs taken by other people that he looks at are lingerie advertisements when he’s six, online pornography when he’s nine or ten, and then a picture of a cute pig on Facebook when he’s seventeen.  I think it sends a bad message about what the process of making art is like to exclusively show him producing art, never viewing it.  In my own life, I’d bet that I spend some seventy percent of my work time reading, at least two-fold more time than I spent writing.  And, sure, it’s unrealistic to expect a bildungsroman to serve as an instructional guide, but I still dream (I should probably be using the word bildungsfilm here instead, but to my anglicized ears that sounds less cool).

The protagonist begins his photography session by taking a picture of a perfectly boring rusted lamp, but by the time Family of the Year are singing about “secrets from our American dreams” he has moved on to a loftier goal: snapping a picture of the fire hydrant standing outside the Roadrunner Deli.

dvd 2.34.20This hydrant is red, with a chipping coat of paint and some yellow flecks vaguely reminiscent of scattered pollen covering its domed bonnet.  It’s a dry barrel hydrant, which surprised me; although I’ve never been to Texas, the impression I have is that the place is hot enough that it would freeze rarely, if at all.  The barrel itself is also much more slender than the squat, round hydrants present in most of the urban and suburban places I’ve lived.  I’m not sure if that is in any way related to the potential flow-rate of the hydrant; to the best of my knowledge, a solid-red hydrant with a coat of paint as old as this one’s appears to be does not indicate a sub-500 gallon per minute flow rate.  Modern hydrants, especially in more populated areas, generally have a bonnet color that doesn’t match the rest of the hydrant and signifies the water pressure it has access to.

And then, after Family of the Year portentously sings “baby needs some protection,” we see the image of the hydrant from the protagonist’s perspective.  It’s a fine image: the hydrant is posed at a jaunty angle in the center of the frame, as though it were ready to stroll forward along the path between scruffy cacti and desiccated tree stump.  The outlet cap is facing the viewer at an angle, the lower standpipe juts up out of the ground, the chain dangles down out of the viewer’s sight.  Its surroundings also give a sense of the loneliness of this place, although fire hydrant photographs can be deceptive that way: because most people capture hydrants in close-ups, they often appear removed from the bustle of life.

Then he leaves, off to college, and we next see him pulling into the parking lot of his dorm.  Walks through the hallway, the song fades into humming, ambient noise of incipient freshman gabbing rises and takes over the audio.

So, really, it’s only the eleven seconds when he was actively photographing a fire hydrant that filled me with joy.  But I think it’s fair to ask, is that enough?  Does one beautiful passage justify a book?  One beautiful scene justify an entire movie?

I don’t know.

Here, a treat!  A couple more hydrant photos!

On time travel movies, particularly Timecrimes.

TImecrimesTimecrimes is the best time travel movie I’ve ever seen.

Which seems like pretty high praise.  There are lots of time travel movies out there: this isn’t a category like “best cowboy movie where the shootouts are replaced by drug trips” (Renegade) or “best cowboy movie where the shootouts are replaced by ramen noodles” (Tampopo) or “best cowboy movie that’s actually a t.v. show and set in outer space” (Cowboy Bebop  – although if you want to add the stipulation “and isn’t a cartoon” then my answer would be Firefly).

“Time travel movies” is a category broad enough that it probably takes more thought coming up with the answer than was put into delineating the category, as opposed to all the above.  And there are plenty of reasonable entries: Donnie Darko, Terminator 2, Primer, Back to the Future, Groundhog Day.  But I think Timecrimes is best.

You should watch it, if you haven’t.  If you like time travel movies.  Maybe even if you don’t, or haven’t yet.  Because, who knows, maybe you’ll still appreciate seeing the best.

And you should watch it, if you haven’t, before you read this essay.  Because you might be one of those people who likes to be surprised by things, or likes to experience a plot with your mind untarnished by expectation, and I can’t very well explain what’s so great about it without giving a lot of that away.

Here, look, just to be extra kind, I’ll do some more dithering-style typing.  So that your eyes don’t accidentally flit down and spoil things for you.

After borrowing the movie from the library, I wound up quite worried that it would be terrible.  Because often movie previews are for things that are vaguely similar to what you’re watching, right?  Like, “if you liked this enough to rent / buy / borrow it, maybe you’ll want to see these other things, too.”  And one of the previews was for (I assume I’ll have the names wrong for these, because I am actually writing this essay about four years after last watching Timecrimes – it’s that good!  Sticks with you, man) a movie called like “Bus!” or something, about sorority women who couldn’t step off this bus or else they’d be attacked and killed, and one called “Quill!“, about a deadly porcupine?  Something like that.

So I felt worried.

And then the movie started, and it was terrible.  Like, it felt unwatchably bad.  But I switched the audio from the English dubbing (why would that be the default?) into the original Spanish and it was much better.

Okay, that’s plenty of dithering.  If you’ve read this far and still haven’t watched the film, you deserve to have it ruined for you.

Timecrimes is great because it has this really serious message about information sets, and it conveys it in an interesting way, in the form of a puzzle that the protagonist has to solve.

And there are some objections you might raise, as far as why you might think that the virtues described in the above sentence are insufficient to redeem the film.  At least, K had these objections.  So maybe you would have them to?  I don’t know what kind of movies you like.

• Why did the innocent woman have to die?

This was what upset K most.  But the thing is, someone had to die.  Because the protagonist realized that the time machine was horrible, so there had to be extremely high stakes in order to get him to go into the machine again.  This aspect lends a degree of nobility to his acts – the only reason he would have used the machine again would be to save his wife.

• Why did he mimic all those horrible acts at first?

Right, so, he chased and stabbed his past self after first going back in time.  But only because he thought he had to.  The time machine technician had convinced him that if anything happened differently on this trip through the time line, horrible consequences could occur.  Who knows, maybe incongruity / destruction of the universe type consequences.  So he was worried that he would disrupt things and tried his best to ensure that everything happened exactly the way he remembered it.

It was only on his second trip back through time that he tried to change things.  Because at that point his wife had been killed.  So, in order to save her, he specifically tried to alter the past.

For me, the movie progresses through three phases, all after he finds the time machine.  In the first, he is afraid of changing anything and is trying to act in ways that reproduce his memories of the past.  In the second, he is afraid that he won’t change things and that will mean his wife will die.  And then, in the third phase, after he wakes up in the car, he has realize that he can’t change anything.  He tried to, he failed, everything matched his previous memories perfectly.  And it would make sense, right?  If there were time travel, then everything should line up, because the inside of his brain is already in a certain state – he has these memories of what for him is the past, and what for other characters is the future – and so those thing must happen to justify the current state of his own mind.

So then the puzzle for him to solve is, How can I be wrong?  He knows that his wife will die.  He watched it happen.  He has a memory of it.  So how can he change things so that falling off the roof does not actually kill his wife?

Personally, I hoped he’d use his third trip through that stretch of time to put a mattress on the ground where his wife was going to fall.  But I guess that’s because I’m a softy.  I don’t like tragedy in art.  Which is kind of crumby, because obviously good art is often tragedy.

But the end-of-movie haircut seemed very clever.  He knew his wife died because he saw a woman with his wife’s haircut fall to her death.  But by giving that haircut to the innocent victim, he makes his own memory incorrect, and his wife is saved.

And, really, that’s all.

But isn’t that enough?  Isn’t doing one beautiful thing, presenting one thing in an interesting way, enough to make a great movie?

Also, in case you were interested, the director does interesting things with information sets in the other film I’ve seen of his, Extraterrestrial.  Like, information sets are the things you care about in game theory.  Why, for instance, a car loses most of its value as soon as you buy it and drive it off the lot.  Now you are privy to secret knowledge about how well it works, and a buyer has to make a guess in the dark.

And, anyway, the fact that he’s making these movies seems cool to me – there are directors out there who seem to be fascinated by outlaws, or motherhood, or precipitous camera angles, or by jacket sleeves that don’t come as far down the wearer’s arms as most people think they ought to.  Like, all sorts of things a director might obsess over.  So isn’t it nice that there is also somebody obsessed with information sets?