05 November 2015

The Ponterotto Connection

When did Fischer succumb to mental illness? In my most recent Video Friday post, Revisionist Chess History, I quoted Tobey Maguire talking about his recent film 'Pawn Sacrifice' and its portrayal of Bobby Fischer. In response to the statement 'I didn't know that Bobby Fischer had this mental illness', Maguire said,

It's fascinating that somebody can be so exceptional at something, particularly a game of strategy that seems to require a sound mind that can reason well, but yet be stricken with seeming-like mental illness. It seems he was paranoid, delusional.

As I said in the same post, I have a big problem with this statement because

I don't recall anyone saying that about Fischer until long after he became World Champion, long after the events in the film.

There's little doubt that there was something wrong with Fischer as he grew older. My question is whether we can say that Fischer suffered from 'mental illness' already as a teenager or as a young man. Strange? Yes. Quirky? Yes. Mentally ill? There's a big leap being made here.

I haven't seen the movie yet and I don't know if I'll have the opportunity to see it soon. My own impressions are based on the impressions of others. Let's look at the first film reviews listed in my post Some Numbers for 'Pawn Sacrifice'.

"What Hollywood may have been looking for in this story was to show the young kid from Brooklyn taking on the Soviet empire and having this great, glorious win," said [Dale Johnson of MICA Entertainment]. "At the same time, the true story was that he was having this deep struggle in somewhat of a descent into madness as he was ascending to brilliance. We had to stay true to that story." • Tobey Maguire moves through chess king Bobby Fischer's checkered life in 'Pawn Sacrifice' [latimes.com]
The movie depicts Fischer’s peculiarities—his anti-Semitism (even though he himself was Jewish), his devotion to the Worldwide Church of God and its radio evangelism, his mood swings and bitter rages, and his increasingly paranoid obsession with conspiracies against him—and suggests that they veered toward mental illness. • Bobby Fischer and the Difficulty of Making Movies About Geniuses [newyorker.com]
Maguire is no cavorting Klaus Kinski when it comes to portraying a man decidedly off his rocker. His peculiar brand of psychosis is a nonchalant petulance, handling international fame and geopolitical pressures with, literally, a paper bag over his head and a penchant for phone dissection. • Pawn Sacrifice: Portrait of the Egomaniac as a Young Man [cornellsun.com]

The phrases are similar -- 'descent into madness', 'veered toward mental illness', 'decidedly off his rocker' -- and convince me that there is indeed a problem, some sort of a bias, with this movie. Why should this be?

While sorting through available material on the making of 'Pawn Sacrifice', I found New Major Motion Picture Owes Its Historical Accuracy to Fordham Education Professor [fordham.edu].

Psychologist Joseph G. Ponterotto, PhD, [...] is the historical consultant on a new major motion picture, Pawn Sacrifice, a drama about enigmatic world chess champion Bobby Fischer and his struggles to walk the fine line between genius and madness. [...] Ponterotto, whose 2012 book A Psychobiography of Bobby Fischer is the definitive psychological profile of the late chess prodigy, worked closely with [co-producer Gail Katz] to review the script for historical accuracy and to write dialogue that captures Fischer’s personality.

I reviewed Ponterotto's book nearly three years ago in a post titled Fischer Psychobiography, and introduced the review with 'I can't remember reading a more depressing chess book.' I found two chapters particularly unsettling -- 'Ch.8 - THE PARALLEL LIVES AND MENTAL ILLNESSES OF PAUL MORPHY AND BOBBY FISCHER' and 'Ch.9 - ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN GENIUS AND MADNESS - ARE CHESS MASTERS MORE VULNERABLE TO MENTAL ILLNESS?' -- and I addressed these later in a post titled Chess Madness.

I'll reserve my final opinion until I've seen the movie, but I'm not hopeful. In his book, Ponterotto wrote, 'Writing a psychological focused life story of an individual recently deceased is a sensitive task' (p.6). Can we depend on Hollywood to be equally sensitive?

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