Three-Dimensional Chess

I read Walter Tevis’s The Queen’s Gambit years ago and loved it. His other filmed books, The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth are great too, and made good movies but the books are still worthy of investigation. The Color of Money doesn’t really have anything much in common with Scorsese’s film and you can see why they chose a different story (“but the book had a very good love story,” said Scorsese in Edinburgh, which was nice of him to note). And there’s an unfilmed sci-fi novel, Mockingbird, which is really beautiful.

I’ve also been impressed with Scott Frank’s stuff — he adapted Elmer Leonard for Soderbergh (OUT OF SIGHT — still maybe SS’s best movie) and from the audio commentary on that one you could tell he was going to direct, and probably be really good at it. And THE LOOKOUT, his first film, was terrific. Like all the promising middlebrow genre filmmakers of his generation, he did time in the Marvel salt mines but the one he wrote, LOGAN, is said to be GOOD. I wasn’t paying attention and thought A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES was just some Liam Neeson movie so I skipped that but now I have bought a DVD of it for 50p because WOW Scott Frank’s miniseries of The Queen’s Gambit is a beautiful thing.

From my memory of the book I can affirm that the CGI visualisations of chessboards are pretty much what Tevis wrote. It’s very faithful though some melodrama early on is removed, which I came to accept as a good call. Though maybe Tevis gains something by making his heroine more damaged.

I can’t recall the clothes in the book — I had a vague impression that Anya Taylor-Joy is more glamorous than the Beth Harmon who Tevis gave us, but I’m probably misremembering. But boy, ATJ is a magnificent screen presence. Her glamour is increasingly weird and witchy so she’s a credible outsider. In fact, everyone in this is terrific, down to the smallest roles — each minor player defeated by ATJ, for instance, is a little one-scene cameo and they’re all uniquely human and different.

Photography, design, music, cutting, are all weapons-grade delicious, and as the story moves through the sixties Scott allows himself a subtly evolving stylistic palette that reflects developing film language of the period without ever becoming pastiche. You don’t see more surefooted choices than this. He could maybe have taken some of them even further, but his caution is probably part of the reason why he hits absolutely everything he aims at.

Nothing negative to say about this show at all, it may be the best American film or “film” of the year.

16 Responses to “Three-Dimensional Chess”

  1. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Logan is actually good, one of the few superhero movies with the spirit of an intelligently written B-genre movie in terms of organic uses of political commentary and so on.

    That said, “Marvel salt mines” is perfect and I am a big fan of Anya Taylor-Joy.

  2. chris schneider Says:

    LOGAN is good, yes, but it does strike me that the Raymond Durgnat phrase “male weepie” applies.

  3. Boy did I love this.

    I haven’t read the book — hadn’t even heard of Tevis before this — but I was reminded a bit of “The Defense,” Nabokov’s novel about a chess champion. It’s one of his early books; he wrote it in Russian and then translated it to English much later.

  4. Everybody should read Tevis and the great thing about this series other than it being great and rewarded with success is that now, everyone will. Even if you know and love the movie versions, the books add more. Roeg’s film of Man Who has a lot of great mysterioso atmosphere and lots of things are left unexplained, but the opposite virtue of the book is the inexorable logic of its tragedy.

    He kind of wrote the same book a lot — they’re nearly all tales of gifted outsiders with addiction issues — but he pulls superb variations on this and so it doesn’t get stale. Like Fast Eddie Felson he was out of the game for decades, but made a stunning comeback.

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “The Lookout” is indeed excellent with Joseph Gordon-Levitt well cast. He’s a marvelous actor but outside of “The Lookout” and “Mysterious Skin” his talents haven’t been well-utilized

  6. I like Gordon-Levitt in “Brick”, where his performance suggests depths of melancholy almost unseemly in a high school student.

  7. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Tat’s the reason why he was cast as the oldest of the aliens on “Third Rock From the Sun” John Lithgow thinks the world of him.

  8. Levitt is just terrific and I hope he makes more of a splash soon — he already has a magnificent filmography, even if bijou.

  9. Boy, mid-century orphanages sure were racially progressive.

  10. really good

    complaints 1) bowdlerizes the past, racism and sexism particularly, to suit positive-messaging liberals 2) masks the lies it tells by pretending to explore racism and sexism 3) stoops to the hoary old chestnut “black woman as spiritual guide to white woman” — and has black woman deny the charge!!!!!!

    “I’m not your guardian angel.”

  11. I think those are fair criticisms. Pointing out the Magic Negro trope is not enough to take the curse off it.

    Frank seems to have tried to make a story without villains (even the orphanage superintendent is finally weak rather than evil)… the sexism Beth encounters is the kind a woman of excellence might face today, rather than the misogyny of the past. Some of his changes make Beth seem less damaged (God knows she’s gone through plenty, but the book adds sexual abuse) and that slackens the tension in places, but there still seems to be plenty. A smart, humane entertainment.

  12. My complaints are also sighs of relief. I did not wish to see what momentarily loomed as inevitable consequences, what you might expect down in the creepy basement of a kid-druggling Christian orphanage. I really dug the “period lighting” (is there an industry-standard name for that? Normally everything goes to a dead blue.

  13. Yes, and Mr. Sheibal (sp?) becomes a touching working-class hero, authentically sullen rather than some mock-grouchy Yoda.

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