Period pieces

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We’re all spending too much time at home watching TV at precisely the moment that the billions spent on original content in the streaming wars kicks in, and so every week there’s a new must-watch binge show that’s being hailed all around and dissected from all angles (The Crown), or a not-very-secret secret that appears out of nowhere (Ted Lasso). I’m not sure how many of them we’ll remember in a few weeks, let alone a few years.

I didn’t think much of The Queen’s Gambit, which seemed like the must-watch for five minutes there. It seemed empty and fetishized America’s post-war boom in the same way that, say, Mad Men did. The only points of interest were really the appearance of Dudley from Harry Potter and the unspoken fact that the lead, Anya Taylor-Joy, and one of her love interests in the show (played by the little demon kid from Love Actually) appear to be exactly the same person.

Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomas Brodie-Sangster

Period dramas tell you a lot about the obsessions of the culture that makes them. These are the moments when a society dreams it was at its best: Britain’s endless parade of Victoriana; America’s detailed recreations of the 1950s and 1960s; war-time dramas from nearly everywhere. Whenever the productions are ghosts or the stories devoid of real depth, it’s partly because the makers seem to believe that the period is itself a character, which seems to me a stretch.

Anyway, the saddest thing about The Queen’s Gambit—and the reason I’m writing about it—isn’t that it’s a failed period piece, or even that it doesn’t capture the spirit of the book (which I haven’t read.) It’s that the life of its author, Walter Tevis, is ultimately much more interesting than the story on the screen.

From a great summary in The Ringer:

Tevis was born in San Francisco in 1928, and learned to play chess at the age of 7. When he was 9 he was diagnosed with rheumatic heart and Sydenham’s choreaand was placed in a convalescent home for a year. While he was committed there, his parents abandoned him and moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where they were originally from.

Eventually, Tevis’s family sent him a train ticket to Kentucky, paid for by a family friend. His parents were strict. “I was brought up by a very castrating mother,” Tevis said. “My father was an alcoholic, too, but he wouldn’t admit it, and my mother wouldn’t acknowledge the problem.” Tevis told The San Francisco Examiner that life in Kentucky made him feel like he had “come from outer space.” He was beaten up by boys at school; he found little in Lexington to relate to. Harmon, too, lives in Lexington, and she also has trouble relating to the other kids in her school. While Beth sinks deep into an obsession with chess, Tevis found comfort in a different game—pool. “The Lexington poolrooms rescued me,” he said. He would hang around the Phoenix Hotel downtown and watch the gamblers play for big money. There, he befriended a boy who had a pool table at home, and Tevis would play him every single day until they “dropped.” Then they would play chess into the night to relax.

Tevis went on to write three novels that got turned into movies, two of them about pool: The Hustler, The Man Who Fell To Earth, and The Color of Money. In between he spent his time drifting around America, drinking himself stupid, playing pool and chess, and pretending to teach.

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