Revealing the life of Glenn Gould in 'Thirty-Two Short Films'

June 17, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

.TC "Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould," which opens today at the Rotunda, is a few too many; 26, say, or possibly even 27 would have been just perfect.

Situating itself somewhere between biopic and documentary (and borrowing techniques from both), the movie presents snapshots of the great but decidedly eccentric Canadian pianist, composer and radio documentarian over the course of his life. The technique is certainly far from mainstream: set off by preciously arty titles ("45 Seconds and a Chair," "Passion According to Gould," "Diary of One Day") on black background, the film offers 32 "interludes" that examine aspects of the Gould life. The progress is roughly but never formally chronological, beginning in childhood (the young Gould was prodigiously clever with numbers) to death (which he predicted with typical self-dramatization.)

It's not dramatic in form, though it dramatizes, with actor Colm Feore standing in (brilliantly) for Gould. But the writers Francois Girard (who directed) and Don McKellar never chose moments of high accomplishment, such as Gould's debut as a pianist at 14 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Rather, like good feature writers, they prefer to illustrate anecdotes that reveal character -- Gould, playing his newest recording for a maid in a Hamburg hotel room and taking almost sensual pleasure from her confusion, reluctance and slow surrender to the sounds.

At the same time, like a documentary, it marshals data and cites witnesses. In one form it offers the music itself, sometimes in the background, sometimes performed on camera; in the other, it conjures literal interviews with witnesses to the Gould saga, including Yehudi Menuhin and family members and friends. It even reproduces Gould's medical diary, his blood-pressure recordings very near the end of his life.

But on some subjects it is as discreet as the White House press of the 1950s. Did this man have a sex life? The movie refuses to consider such a thing. Did he have any life outside his inner one? Again, the movie is too narrowly focused to essay an opinion. It primarily celebrates Gould the musician, Gould the intellectual and particularly Gould the eccentric, and he was a very strange duck indeed.

A world celebrity by his 20s for brilliantly dense and technically daunting piano readings, Gould at age 32 simply said: enough, goodbye and drop dead. He abandoned his extremely lucrative concert career, cloistered himself in a Toronto apartment or in a cabin on a remote Ontario lake and dedicated himself entirely to making records, taking drugs, talking on the telephone and playing the stock market.

The movie finds his stubbornness both provocative and preposterous. It goes to great pains to re-create Gould's prickly justification for his withdrawal decision, an elaborate metaphysical concoction which held that the "concert experience" was somehow "too hierarchical," and it created the "artist" as dictator (no matter how benevolent) and the audience as his subjects. Then, merrily, it quickly shifts to Menuhin, who says he thinks his friend was the sort of man who did what he did because he felt like it and then erected rationalizations afterward.

Perhaps. Whatever, the film makes clear that here was a man who made his own way in the world, as if the world wasn't there. Its favorite image is the man almost imploded into himself, involuntarily conducting as he hears playback or orchestrates sound mesh for radio documentary or, possibly, simply listening to phantom music as it echoes deep in his cerebellum. Bent, ascetic, blasting out vibrations of deep distress, his face a mask of passion, he seems a man tortured by bliss; his hands have a life of their own and they rise, fall, flutter or dance to the rhythms.

The preciousness of structure grows somewhat stultifying after a bit; "Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould" is infernally smug in its seriousness of purpose, and after making its key points about the intermingling of oddity and genius in films one through 20, it makes them again in 20 through 30; finally, in 30 and 31, it achieves a kind of crescendo, as, tragically young and haunted by the deaths of other geniuses, Gould faces his own extinction. Film No. 32 -- Gould music on a rocket ship to the stars -- is wholly unnecessary and quite pretentious. We already knew he'd last forever, just as he himself did.

'Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould'

Starring Colm Feore

Directed by Francois Girard

Released by Goldwyn


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