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The “Chessence” Of Chilly Gonzales’ Ivory Tower
Mr Seacrudge , October 14th, 2010 08:04

With cameos from Peaches and Feist, Chilly Gonzale's first foray into filmmaking is an inspired surrealist tale of two chess-playing brothers. The Quietus' resident chess expert, Mr. Seacrudge explains how the film missed a few "moves" and fills us in on real life "Jazz Chess"

In support of his latest foray into the world of revenge electronica, Chilly Gonzales – the piano talk show host, maestro of the cheesy flourish, and platinum-selling music producer - has just released his first feature film, Ivory Tower.

The movie is an inventive satire of the uneasy marriage between competition and art, games and reality, which follows the ludicrous love triangle between two brothers as they struggle for the same woman and the same chess championship.

It opens with disillusioned former-champion Hershell (Gonzales) returning from a long hiatus in Eastern Europe, during which he has renounced his competitive instincts. Now, back in the West, he hopes to popularize his new ideas of “Jazz Chess,” a variant of the game in which players cooperate to produce chess as a work of art rather than a competitive sport. But in an ironic twist, Hershell finds he must re-enter the world of ruthless competition in order to secure an audience for his pacifistic invention. “Jazz Chess” turns out to be still-born without a marketing strategy and celebrity endorsement and so, as a way to promote “Jazz Chess,” the idealistic Hershell finds himself again drawn into a contest for the championship - this time versus his materialistic brother Thadeus (played by Montreal DJ/producer Tiga), who has not only become reigning Canadian Chess Champion in Hershell’s absence, but stolen his woman as well.

Along the way, some high points include Peaches’ compelling performance in the role of Marsha, as she struggles to choose between a matrimonial existence as the trophy of one of the chess-obsessed brothers, or the pursuit of her own freaky artistic trajectory doing “violin-stallations.” Equally engaging is comedian Little Hamm, as the tournament commentator, who brings an hilarious geeky fervor to his description of the unfolding chess match. Pop superstar Leslie Feist appears suddenly in a bit part, providing deadpan commentary through her glasses, opposite Hamm. And then there is Gonzales himself, performing a tap dance with chess pieces accompanied by a jazz combo, with the chess pieces themselves serving as the taps (must be seen to be understood). As the tournament reaches the final elimination round, the film builds to a campy crescendo with an underdogged, dazed Gonzales crazily channeling the “chessence” – that is, the inner spiritual being of the chess pieces – in a last desperate bid for victory and redemption at the chessboard. The ultimate plot twist, ramified in an excellent animation sequence by Philippe Blanchard, makes for a satisfying denouement.

For the chess aficionado, however, the film is not quite as successful: why doesn’t the movie show more of the actual chess board play, incorporating some of the many strange and humorous positions that have really occurred in chess history? How about Lasker’s unique checkmate with a king move, that occurred in his game against Thomas in 1912? Or Marshall’s spectacular queen sacrifice at Breslau - one of the most famous tactical shots of all time? For Gonzales not to have used more of the several centuries worth of chess literature is a bit of a disappointment to the hard-core chess fan. While the real thematic focus of the film is human relationships, and chess is just a metaphor, the lack of concrete chess positions and analysis leaves the film feeling empty at its ludic core.

The creators might also have referenced colorful characters and archival footage from chess history. For instance, how about taking a play from the world’s first chess movie, the 1925 silent short Chess Fever? Made for the Moscow International Tournament of the same year, Chess Fever featured a slapstick narrative interwoven with piano accompaniment and actual footage of the world’s first massive state-sponsored chess tournament. This included an appearance by then World Champion Jose Capablanca, who rescues the protagonist’s fiance after she feels she’s been abandoned for chess.

The authors might also have found (or could have created) novel chess positions that metaphorically mirrored the larger themes of the film - adding suspense, detail, and historical background to the culminating scenes without getting bogged down in chess esoterica. Hopefully, Ivory Tower will eventually see a wider release (it got a Special Mention at the Locarno film fest recently), and some sequences might still be added in a few animated chess diagrams, with a life-or-death running commentary from Little Hamm in a voice-over.

It would also have been nice to see more of the mechanics and positions of “Jazz Chess” itself: for not only is a real cooperative version of chess possible, but one has actually already been invented and successfully marketed in Canada by Family Pastimes, a company producing only cooperative versions of popular competitive games. Their motto, much like Hershell in the film, is "playing together, not against each other." In one of their versions of cooperative chess, titled Diplomatic Mission, the players try to maneuver their respective “Diplomats” across the board, without setting off hostilities among the surrounding pieces, which have their own ideas. The starting set up is different every time, and pieces can be stacked as escorts once the diplomats enter enemy territory. In order to make the game work, both sides must discuss and agree on the specifics of their strategic plans.

There are also many other interesting chess variants – albeit of the competitive sort. For instance, Schach Plus, Choiss, and Beyond Chess, which use movable tiles for a board, creating the new strategic dimension of a morphing terrain; Proteus, a kind of chess played with cubes, where each face of the cubes represents a stage of promotion or demotion (ranging from pawn to queen) for each piece; Quantum Chess, a computerized variant in which the pieces have multiple potentials like subatomic particles in quantum physics, and you only know the ultimate value of a piece when you touch it.

Further development of “Jazz Chess” needn’t have been a boring technical excursion, but could have actually humorously expanded and concretized the primary themes and metaphors of the film. As in Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass, or Nabakov’s novel The Defense, entire narratives have been structured after real chess positions. This could have added another level of comedic depth, while still leaving much to the viewer’s imagination.

Despite Gonzales’ and director Adam Traynor’s focus on lighthearted laughs, the underlying theme of Ivory Tower may not be as ludicrous as the movie itself: can cooperation be as interesting and fulfilling as competition? Is the flower-power mantra of “love. peace, & understanding” inherently less marketable than the drama of victory and defeat? And what will happen to society as the boundaries between game and reality continue to dissolve, and an army of young geeks emerge from behind their iPads into the “real” world of pervasive gaming?