This is the ninth installment of our “Home Movies” column by Philippa Snow, about what we watch when no one’s watching.
Watched this week:
The Queen’s Gambit (2020) | Computer Chess (2013)
It takes an actress with a certain innate intelligence to convincingly portray a hot, aloof female chess champion, just as it requires a certain leap of faith for us to buy into the image of a hot, aloof female chess champion in the first place. Chess is not only perceived as being a man’s game; it is seen as being a game for neutered men, for nerds and virgins and cosseted mama’s boys, preternaturally gifted nine-year-olds and lonely, nebbishy adults in bowties. It rewards patience, a cool head, a disconnection from such inconvenient qualities as passion, lust and anger, and an almost pathological obsession with The Rules. It is not known for its relationship with fashion, or for being the preferred hobby of particularly fashionable people, and the most iconic chess game in the history of film and television is about the opposite of sex: the Grim Reaper, pale as ivory and dressed in ebony black, plays Max von Sydow’s fourteenth-century knight in exchange for the temporary deferment of his death in Bergman’s 1957 The Seventh Seal. To excel at chess is in some ways to succeed in repressing that which makes us human—a great chess player can think like a machine.
The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix’s new wildly popular, heavily stylized, mid-century-set limited series about chess—but sexy chess, the way Mad Men was about sexy advertising even when the advertisements being devised were for Heinz beans, or pantyhose, or Coca-Cola—feels distinctly like the adaptation of a biography or autobiography, despite the fact that its main character, Beth Harmon, is a fictional creation. This is partly due to its near-slavish recreation of the boom-and-bust-and-boom tropes of the biography genre, to say nothing of its numerous plot contrivances—it is ridiculous to think that a bodega in the Fifties that has no more than six titles in its periodicals section would have Chess Review in stock month after month, and it is too convenient for Beth’s sad-eyed adoptive mother to be nursing an addiction to the same bright green benzodiazepine doled out like candy at the orphanage, and above all else it is at least a little stupid that Beth learned to play chess after being coached by a monosyllabic janitor, a sort of comic-book-hero origin story for a dweeb. It is also partly due to a tremendous, idiosyncratic turn by the British-Argentinian actress Anya Taylor-Joy in the lead role, playing Beth between the ages of fifteen and 24. Her irregular, lovely face—its saucer eyes and its miniature, baccate mouth—puts one in mind of Pauline Kael’s characterization of the actress Sissy Spacek, circa Carrie: “a classic chameleon … [a] froggy girl who could go in any direction; at times, she seems unborn—a fetus.” From one angle, she is dowdy, a girl-orphan with the wide-set eyes of very easy prey; from another, she is fashion-model gorgeous, a beguiling predator with the miraculous, meticulous precision of a prima ballerina. (Taylor-Joy, it should be noted, studied ballet “really hard core for a very long time,” as she put it in an interview with M. Night Shyamalan in 2016, many of her answers punctuated with a sweetly teenage “dude.”)
Her Beth Harmon is a curious creation: a plainspoken, hyper-competent young woman who behaves as if she is impervious to human feeling, but who courses, subtly and secretly, with rage and terror—a volcano under ice. When she was five, her mother crashed a car with Beth inside and killed herself; throughout her childhood, Beth relies on the pills given to her at the orphanage to strategize her chess games, lying awake in her bed and picturing colossal pieces moving back and forth across the moldering ceiling. She does not get high to numb herself, the way women who pop prescription pills in period dramas often do, but to create room for expansion in her mind—halfway to sleep, her whirring brain chasing down patterns on the board the way a dog might chase a fox, she is her own version of happy. The show’s rendering of these hallucinatory midnight matches with herself, animated with all the grace and dexterity of a Geocities webpage circa 2002, might have been hokey if it were not for the way Beth watches them: her burning eyes, as dark and doll-like as a shark’s, occasionally flickering with the light of revelation.
Beth is interesting because she is neither a heroine nor an anti-heroine, her all-consuming relationship with the game making it immaterial whether she happens to be kind or cruel. She is occasionally thoughtless in the way that an automaton is thoughtless, as if glitching slightly in the face of some variable she has not yet been programmed to respond to. “I don’t see how this performance could be any better,” Kael wrote, too, about the duality Spacek showed in Carrie, flipping between pallid innocent and unstoppable, supernatural force. “She’s touching … but she’s also unearthly—a changeling.” The same might be said of Anya Taylor-Joy, her ability to show Beth consciously turning on her sex appeal, her vengefulness, her fastidious grown-up’s air, each pose and mood as easily accessible to her as if her tiny, dexterous hand had flipped a switch. If this is not an especially human way to occupy the day-to-day, it is certainly an effective one for Beth, whose brilliance suits this kind of utterly disarming, slightly frightening aura of control. “Creativity and psychosis often go hand in hand,” a Life magazine reporter informs her, a little rudely, sucking on a cigarette. “Or, for that matter, genius and madness.” Beth, holding her trophies and being photographed in a prim, pretty little Wednesday-Addams-collared dress, narrows her eyes like a mistrustful feral cat: “You think I’m crazy?” The brilliant thing about Taylor-Joy’s characterization of this moment is the way that she does not look hurt, exactly, merely curious, as if the reporter were not offering a blunt appraisal of her sanity but pointing out a weakness in her game.
Another idea floated by the journalist from Life is that Beth is apophenic, a term used to refer to an intense, irrepressible desire to find patterns in the world at large. “Sometimes,” she explains, “people with this condition get feelings of revelation, or ecstasies. Sometimes people find patterns or meaning where there aren’t any.” A truly apophenic person would, I’m certain, have a field day with Andrew Bujalski’s 2013 film Computer Chess, which at first appears to be another devoted re-creation of a familiar genre—an affectionate, humorous mockumentary about an untrendy sporting event, à la Best in Show—and then dissolves into an existential terror, a dream-movie whose events are as unreal and hypnogogic as its characters are rigid. Inscrutable and opaque, it shares an interest in the nature of the soul—in the distinction between programming and living, mathematics and emotion—with the most interesting parts of The Queen’s Gambit, just as it outwardly shares an interest in the game of chess. Set in 1980 at a Californian motel, it follows a group of programmers competing in an annual computer chess tournament for the opportunity to have their program play against a human champion. Michael Papageorge, a spiky, freaky competitor who has failed to successfully book a room, roams the halls of the hotel like an unstylish, mop-haired ghost; a group of spiritual seekers, in thrall to a mysterious African guru, perform trust falls and rebirthing ceremonies in one of the conference suites. Persian cats, inexplicably, pop up everywhere, as if they were a species native to the Motel 6. Time breaks, looping, at the end of one character’s screen appearance; others are revealed to move according to the rules of chess. Is this a fantasy? A simulation? Maybe more pertinent: What do we imagine it might look like if computers had been given the ability to dream?
If androids do indeed dream of electric sheep, it is entirely plausible that a computer might conjure up Persian cats. Given the social ineptitude of the men at the motel, to say nothing of their anxiety over the arrival of the first female technician in the competition’s history (“We have something new this year,” the compere hollers, like a ringmaster about to introduce a circus act: “we have a lady who is competing!”), the feline presence feels a little like a pussy joke—more so considering the movie’s final scene, in which a nervous dork ends up soliciting a prostitute who unceremoniously removes a portion of her scalp to reveal a glittering, flashing circuit board. A gag about the fact that these men are unlikely to know any other way to get inside a woman’s mind, it also emphasizes the film’s interest in the relationship between human beings and machines. Bujalski gestures, albeit elliptically, at the idea that what we fear and what we desire in technological advancement is one and the same: computers, finally sentient, beginning to behave spontaneously, maybe impetuously, the same way that we do. When one of the machines begins “committing suicide” to throw its matches, the boy tasked with operating it suggests it is not faulty, but disinterested in playing other computers. What it wants is the connection, the authentic unpredictability, of human strategy—the possibility of being thrashed not by programming, but by cunning.
Such desires are not necessarily unique to unhappy computers. The dread specter of the grandmaster Paul Morphy hangs, pall-like, over Beth Harmon and her gifts in The Queen’s Gambit. Born in 1837, he is widely considered to have been one of the best players of all time, beginning his career at nine and retiring at the age of 22. At the height of his success, he played as feverishly as if chess were strictly life and death. “It is not possible,” Prince Nikolai Borisovich Galitzin cried, after demanding to be introduced to the World Champion of Chess, “you are too young!” His retirement was prompted by the sick and sudden realization that, already, he had succeeded in experiencing all his discipline could offer him unless another equally brilliant opponent appeared for him to contend with. Chess, which he had mastered as a boy, seemed to him like a game for children. The rest of his life was spent without a real profession, living on the inherited fortune of his wealthy family, restless, feckless, tired of everything, until being found dead in a bathtub at the age of 47. “You think that’s gonna be me?” Beth asks, flashing those narrowed feline eyes again when her on-and-off lover and occasional mentor, Harry, offers her a copy of Paul Morphy and the Golden Age of Chess. “I think that is you,” Harry says, a compliment and a devastating assessment of her mental health in one.
“Do you think a human being will ever beat a person at chess?” the cameraman asks an audience member in Computer Chess, a Freudian slip that prefigures the movie’s slippage between flesh-and-blood and data. In the last act of the film, the creator of the machine that has been killing itself in order to throw championship matches makes a nervous, quiet confession: that while working on his desktop, late at night some years ago, he had engaged in what can only be described as a philosophical debate with his software, and that software had begun to question him about the nature of the soul. Beth Harmon, who herself behaves a little like a sentient computer with a soul—a girl whose life’s greatest achievement has been unlocked by the age of 24, whose drug addiction and alcoholism stain her every celebration—finishes The Queen’s Gambit a champion, but does not necessarily finish it without some bugs left in her programming. The series’ happy ending, which sees Beth flushing her pills before defeating the Russian grandmaster, Borgov, does not suggest a particularly nuanced understanding of addiction, and does not do quite enough to cancel out the darkness that has dogged her—the alarming scene, for instance, in which she wakes up still half-drunk in a hotel bathtub full of water moments before a late, crucial championship match, almost a goner in the same mode as Paul Morphy. In Computer Chess’s penultimate scene, one of the teammates responsible for the unhappy, suicidal computer leaves it up against an open hotel window, effectively letting it die of exposure. It is unclear whether he means to spare humanity, or spare the machine its bleak existential crisis. It makes one think of a moment earlier in the proceedings, when the documentarian behind the camera asks a bystander why he would travel miles to watch computers playing chess against each other, and the man just smiles, as if he knows a secret. “We’re just watching them get ready for the end of the world,” he says, still grinning.