Ivory Tower, 2010
Erik Malmsten discovered a listing for this film in the program for the NXNE music festival in Toronto in June. We headed for the Underground Theatre in Chinatown for a 2pm Friday showing, the only one. There was a line-up of a few dozen festival pass holders, and another dozen ticket buyers. We were the only chess players; everyone else was there for the music. The theatre was huge… the presenter from the festival asked if anyone from the film was present to talk about it. One lady put up her hand; she didn’t want to do a public Q&A session, but I indicated we’d like to talk to her afterwards.
Ivory Tower is a Canadian film, made and set in Toronto. The older brother returns home from his wanderings abroad. He initially left to play in chess tournaments. He picks up the key to the house, and we see that it’s on a key-chain with the white rook referred to in the title. We’re quickly introduced to the rest of the cast: his bed-ridden mom, his ex-girlfriend the performance artist, and her fiancee: his younger brother, the Canadian chess champion!
The plot follows two parallel stories. First, the competition between the brothers for the woman. The older brother was attending her performance, got wrapped up in winning a chess game, and missed her show – but his brother did not. Second, the competition between the brothers over their views of the game of chess. The younger brother plays to win. He’s very good at it – champion 5 years in a row, and a life of luxury from product endorsements! But the older brother changed when he learned a new philosophy during his wanderings. He wants to play co-operatively, create a game with his partner. He hears music in the chess pieces: jazz chess. He plays the moves that feel right. He finds his “chessence”.
Naturally, all of this comes down to a contest between them at the end. The older brother tries to sell jazz chess to the corporate world, but is told that he’s not as recognizable as his younger brother. So, he must enter and win the Canadian Championship. The event is set up as a 32 player knockout in a familiar setting: a school gym. Of course, they meet in the final and it goes down to a final tie-breaker game, but I won’t reveal the result or what happens to the girl.
The film is hilarious, for chess players anyway. It’s a take by musicians on our chess world. They have fun with the ideas of jazz chess, creating the slogan “Chess we can!”. The highlight is a performance with the tapping of the chess pieces on a chess board as one of the percussion instruments in the band!
There’s lots of in-jokes and references, such as the “Polgar Defense”. The older brother says he’s found his life’s ambition; the younger brother quips, “You’ve found a way out of the Maroczy Bind?”.