Saturday, September 11, 2010

My queen was resting on the rank of my queen's knight

[This is the first of two postings this weekend on related themes.]
Dear Mr Rayner

I write for a chess blog, and have been taking an interest in the short film which you scripted, Playing Against The Clock, directed by Paul Olding for Bongo Reef.

I wondered - what were you intending to convey with the phrase "my queen was resting on the rank of my king's knight"?

All the best

Walthamstow International Film Festival ends this weekend. It's running at Beyca, 83 Grove Road London E17. Nearest Tube Walthamstow Central or there's a variety of buses. It might be of interest to those of our readers who live in and around London: there are ninety short films to see, running on a continuous loop. Two of these films have chess as a theme.

One is Playing Against The Clock, made by Bongo Reef Pictures and directed by Paul Olding, in which a couple discuss chess in the back of a taxi on the way to hospital. It's part of a longer film called Taxi, a quadrilogy of which Playing Against The Clock is the first part.

The script for Playing Against The Clock was written by Howard Rayner, whose precise acquaintance with the game I do not know, but it does not appear to be extensive.
Glad you liked the film!

Connie and Marty (the couple in the film) are based on some friends of mine who suddenly developed problems with their TV reception and took up playing chess every night. Connie's read all the books and wants to finish the game early. She's trying to achieve a swift check mate. Of course anyone with half a brain could see her ploy – which Marty does – his advice to be more sophisticated in her strategies results in an unforeseen consequence when she comes to the conclusion he's too insensitive for her - and she knows he will not see her move to divorce him coming.

All the best

Howard Rayner
You could just about get away with "I spotted your ploy" and even, assuming we are talking about two beginners, "the classic four-move checkmate", but what in the name of God is "my queen was resting on the rank of my king's knight" supposed to mean?

It means that somebody has been writing about chess who knows nothing about chess and has decided to bullshit their way through. Given that the film appears to have been shown in various festivals - and won prizes - without anybody noticing or caring, I suppose they might as well.
Dear Howard

Thanks for this.

I think I gather the symbolism. But in terms of a conversation about chess, what is it supposed to mean?


The other is Checkmate, directed by Navarro Aydemir, first shown as part of the Little Eye Show at the Curzon in Soho and originally made as a graduation project for university. The chess is a bit better here - the director has described himself to me as a beginner but be that as it may, he's made the effort to try and present the game properly.

Unfortunately the continuity has gone a bit haywire, such that, for instance, a pawn that's on d6 early on in the game is moved on to that square a couple of minutes later. And that in general, a game that is quite well advanced when we first see it, appears shortly to turn into a game that has barely started.

Come to that, the checkmate-out-of-nowhere that finishes the game seems to me to be too much of a cliché. Still, there's a difference between trying to get it right, and thinking that it doesn't matter whether you do or not. It's not the worst I've ever seen.

Nor, indeed, is Playing Against The Clock, though it does its best in that regard. I've seen worse - actually, I've seen rather worse while preparing this article, and you, now, can do the same. Vimeo, the video-sharing site on which both these films are hosted, is among the sponsors of the Festival, and shortly having watched Mr Aydemir's short on that site, I thought I'd look around to see if I could find other chess films for purposes of comparison.

Unfortunately, I could. I entered Checkmate as a search term and to my surprise I found stacks - stacks of short films all with that same title. So many that for a while, I gave this post the provisional title I Know, Let's Call it "Checkmate"! I also considered Seventeen Short Films About Checkmate. It could have been more, had I not left some out: with or without the omissions, I could also have called it Some Of The Worst Films I've Ever Seen.

It would be cruel to say so, though, albeit chess is a cruel game. Because some of these films are made by schoolkids. And even if this

is pretty horrid - please don't use up sixteen minutes of your day watching it all the way through - is its presentation of chess really significantly worse than what we saw in Playing Against The Clock?

I don't know that it is. It's not even significantly worse than this.

Two friends burgle a house, one of them hoping to raise funds to put himself through MIT. They get caught by the owner, since despite the fact that one of them is obviously extraordinarily clever, they haven't made sure the owner's out before breaking in.

He threatens to kill them - but offers them a challenge for their lives! So the MIT-wannabe plays him a game of chess and blow me if he doesn't win, surprising his opponent with a checkmate out of nowhere. Then, after they are let go, they both end up at MIT. Having mysteriously been sent envelopes of cash by they know not whom. Oh, and the owner turns out to teach at MIT too.

It's as bad as that. Don't watch this one either.

Or this one.

It seems to be a college project, as are not a few of the featured films, this one being a student at Emily Carr University of Art And Design in Vancouver, where the director, if that's not putting it too highly, describes herself as "a yeti hat wearing basterd cat who loves art".

I do not doubt it, though from the evidence of our film she is not much loved by art in return. The chess in this one features a mate on f7 which the White player, a distinctly unattractive adolescent, somewhat surprisingly stumbles across, before going off with the girl playing Black. Perhaps it was a challenge, as with the previous film, but this time, in winning the game, he won her hand in marriage. Who can say.

If I am starting to sound a little misanthropic, all I can say is that I had to watch all these films all the way through at least once and sometimes more. One cannot reasonably expect one's personality to emerge undamaged from such an ordeal.


is another one from the "chess in a mental ward" school. It's by David Izatt, to whom I considered writing with the questions "did you direct this?" and "why?".

One of the actors actually appears to be getting regular work including a feature called The Pawn. "He struggles to piece together the missing hours of his life" - tell me about it, I spent ages researching this piece - "and only by putting the pieces together can we discover the shocking truth". But isn't that a jigsaw metaphor?


claims to have been "inspired" by Stefan Zweig's The Royal Game, prompting the thought that "uninspired" might have been closer to the truth, while yet some distance from it still. The central character develops a nosebleed at the end, apparently from mental anguish, which may be caused by the realisation that the board has been the wrong way round all through the film.

There's not much one can say about the next one

other than just because it's pastiche doesn't mean it's any good. It's "a mate's Uni project", says the editor, who adds "let me know what you think". Better not.

It's not all kids: this one

is from a Filmmaking for Adults class at the New Jersey Film School, inclining me to forgive its theme of the-player-who-thinks-he's-good-being-checkmated, which checkmate, as ever, comes out of nowhere. Certainly as a crime against chess it's not to be compared with the following effort

which is also a college project, the college in question being the University of Central Florida. The director tells us:
I'm...making this project for my Foundations of Productions class. The game of chess represents Alexa's life. As she plays against "Death," every move has meaning.
Quite so: the move queen takes bishop, for instance, has the meaning "this guy is making a film about chess without having a clue how it's played", given that the king is in check while this capture is going on.

It's a nice touch, though, to have somebody play chess with Death. Only be sure always to call it, please, hommage.

Is it all getting a bit too much? Right, let's have a break. Let's watch some cartoons.

This Korean animation

is charming enough as long as you don't wonder how the castled king gets back to its home square, behind an unmoved pawn that had already moved - or wonder what colour the right-hand corner square seems to be, and why the left-hand corner square is the same.

Never mind. Animation doesn't observe the requirements of reality, that's what's so much fun about it. The laws of chess, likewise, are temporarily suspended. (Then again, in cinema the laws of chess are normally suspended.)

Not much happens in this one

though it does feature a rather dinky chess set. The director is a Junior Electronic Media Production major at Kent State University, where "shooting" usually means something else. So sometimes the absence of drama is a good thing.

At least, it does no harm. Nor does this

but the next one is much more fun: Vivaldi, Morricone, and a joke borrowed from Spielberg and Harrison Ford.

A good joke, though. But what language is it in? I asked the director:
The dialogue was basically nonsensical English phrases that a friend and I typed into a translation website converted into Dutch. We don't speak Dutch so our pronunciation was to say the least, terrible.

We then sped up the voices to make it sound like crazy Dutch children on crack.
That's what I like about cartoons. They're basically for kids. So are clowns:

I rather enjoyed that, although of course you know long before the end that the smart guy is going to be checkmated. Out of nowhere, of course.

Remember the four-move checkmate from Playing Against The Clock? I suspect that what it means - if it actually does mean something, unlike "resting on the rank of my queen's knight" - is Scholar's Mate (I'll spare you a link, shall I?) which comes up in the next film.

Unlike most of its predecessors, this one is worth watching, if only because the lead, Jay Kubalek, appears to know something about acting, and it's a surprise to see he has no credits other than this.

I've never heard of correspondence chess being played by taking photos of the board, but unlike most deviations from reality when chess is depicted on-screen, which speak of lack of knowledge and an unwillingness to address it, this one strikes me as imaginative. A shame about the Scholar's Mate, though.

Perhaps the best thing to do, if you're a film-maker and want to make something about chess without actually knowing anything about it, is not to take it all that seriously. Matt Thiesen doesn't, in my favourite of all the films here (give or take the final one to come).

Yes, I know that's not a hard bar to get over, very much the opposite. But it's a nice little film, with some good jokes. It's not pretentious, it doesn't use chess as a clumsy metaphor, it doesn't display its ignorance. It doesn't take its theme too seriously and it's all the better for it.

I mean why make a movie about chess, and pretend you know something - when it's obvious you don't? I know you'll get away with it more often than you won't, but will you actually make something that's any good? Notice how the same things come up. The sudden checkmate, delivered almost always against the player who thinks they're superior. The psychiatric ward. The very title, Checkmate. Even the dialogue. ("Checkmate". "Good game".)

There's a saying about writing, that you should write what you know. If you don't, if you write what you don't know, then you'll not only get things very wrong, you'll also have little idea what's a cliché, what's simply silly, what's been done too many times before. Why do that? And if you must step outside the realm of what you know - as everybody has to do from time to time - then why not try a little more to get it right?

I know all these films are amateur films, most of them are student films, to take them too seriously is like annotating a club game as if the players were grandmasters. But some of them have been in festivals, have won prizes, have been made by people who do, or who aspire to do, professional work. And also, there's this. What I say above reflects something that happens when chess is depicted in professional work, which is that people want chess, they want to take it seriously - too seriously - as a metaphor, but at the same time, they don't want to take the trouble to get chess right. (For more on which, see tomorrow's posting.)

Gaaah. All right, I admit it, I am taking this all far too seriously. That is what chessplayers do. We take things far too seriously.

That's the spirit of chess.

[Thanks to Richard: thanks also to Liza Fletcher, Katrina Yau, Aaron DeLaRosa, Gus Sacks, Howard Rayner, Paul Olding and Navarro Aydemir for their help with this piece.]


Jonathan B said...

The surprise winner/sudden mate gambit is not unknown to the script writers of Star Trek

Jonathan B said...

or Doctor Who