The Martha’s Vineyard Film Society (MVFS) has a good habit of providing value-added bonuses to its patrons in the form of personal appearances by the storytellers at film screenings.
On August 20 at 7:30 pm, filmgoers will have the opportunity to see “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” a classic 1993 story of father-son relationship. The first bonus is the opportunity to meet and speak with the film’s real-life protagonists, author Fred Waitzkin and his now-grown child chess prodigy son, eight-time national chess champion Josh Waitzkin.
Island psychiatrist Dr. Charles Silberstein will moderate an audience Q&A session with the men after the screening at the Film Center, located in the Tisbury Marketplace off Beach Road in Vineyard Haven. Tickets are available at the door or in advance at mvfilmsociety.com.
Fred Waitzkin is a New York Times bestselling author of several nonfiction books about relationships between fathers and sons. A former award-winning journalist, Mr. Waitzkin has spent his lifetime pursuing and explaining the nature of his own relationships. He employs a mode of investigative journalism that requires an unflinching measurement of his own and other men’s behavior in all their relationships. A straight talker, you could say.
Which brings us to bonus number two. Mr. Waitzkin recently authored his first novel, a barnburner with a sweeping storyline revolving around the love relationship between a much older man and a younger woman. He has upped the relationship ante in “The Dream Merchant” a sexy, edgy, and somewhat controversial book that he will sign and discuss at the event.
Looking at Mr. Waitzkin’s body of work, we can view “The Dream Merchant” as further chapters in the author’s mission to understand why men do what they do in their transactional love relationships.
The Times spoke to MVFS director Richard Paradise last week about the August 20 event.
“We’ve had a number of these events,” he said. “Audience members get to understand what went in and out of the movie compared with the book. The film is based on his son, a real-life prodigy, and we have the hero present for the discussion. Often we only get the filmmaker. It’s rare that we are able to get the writer and the characters on stage as well to talk about the film, the book, and their relationship.”
We asked Josh Waitzkin to comment on his dizzying run to chess mastery, his relationship with his father, and the movie it produced: “Honestly, I think it would be hard to speak to our pre-chess relationship because I was so young and those crazy years were so intense and formative, and spanned my life from age 6 to 23. We were a team, joined at the hip. Our emotions were very much intertwined, which could surely be frowned upon from a distant armchair. But to compete at a world class level, by definition, limits have to be pushed. And at times we pushed them — or blew right by them.
“We shared tremendous thrills and heartbreaks, and a deep love developed. My dad was also with me in Taiwan when I won world championships in the martial arts many years later. I could hear his voice in the stands through all the pain and the chants of thousands who were rooting against me. I think we are a helluva team.
“I’d say the movie is thematically accurate, but factually quite Hollywood. The first time I saw the film, I was miserable. All I could see were the differences. What broke my heart was the characterization of my first [chess] coach, Bruce Pandolfini, who Ben Kingsley portrayed in a manner that had nothing to do with reality. Kingsley played a harsh disciplinarian, while Bruce is a softie, so sweet, deeply conflicted about kids competing. He focused on nurturing my love for the game above all else. This was his greatest gift. On the other hand, over the years I did have coaches like Kingsley’s fiction, so you could say there was a deeper truth. This is a pattern throughout many of the discrepancies.
“I came to peace with the movie once I was able to see it as a work of art separate from any literal association with my life. It’s a beautiful film, and, however abstract my internal connection, I’m honored to have inspired so many through it,” he said.
Father and son are on the same page with regard to the film version. “I hated the movie when it first came out,” Fred Waitzkin said. “It wasn’t our lives and I’d sweated to make the book as true as I could manage, warts and all. It was a Hollywood version of our lives. I first saw it in a small theater packed with reporters waiting to ask a hundred questions. I was humiliated and appalled. A movie of course takes short cuts, exaggerates, and puts in schmaltz.
“For the first few years I couldn’t bear to look at it. But five or six years later I was able to watch it as something entirely different than the book I had written. I kind of liked it. It was a very sweet, inspiring story. In a way it was like a story that had been inspired by our story, rather than the story itself.
“I think Josh and I were astonishingly well suited as partners. He had the gift. He could play the game the first day he looked at the pieces. When he was seven years old he could beat most adults. He was a champion at eight. I was born to be a coach. I was never particularly good at competitive sports though I had a great passion for sports. I was enthralled with chess from the Bobby Fischer days but had no gift for the game.
“The psychological component is complex and delicate. How much is too much? When does the parent’s passion exceed that of the child? When does a parent’s vicarious pleasure exceed what is healthy for a child? I pushed Josh, no question. Too hard? Maybe at times, but that is hard to know in a finite way because he had tremendous passion for chess and competition.
“My wife, Bonnie, is smart and savvy. She was always a mitigating factor — she was a part of our team. She kept the craziness in check. I think we were a great team. Like all fathers and sons we have had some issues, but he is my best friend today.”
“Searching for Bobby Fischer” and discussion with Fred and Josh Waitzkin, 7:30 pm, Tuesday, August 20, M.V. Film Center, Vineyard Haven. $12; $7 M.V. Film Society members. For more information, call 508-696-9369 or visit mvfilmsociety.com.