Curing the pianist who couldn't play

Remarkable film follows Leon Fleisher's journey, through science, back to art

Critical Eye

February 18, 2007|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

Headlines proclaiming Leon Fleisher as a teenage piano prodigy; applause rocking the theater; and a sepia record jacket announcing the pianist teaming with conductor George Szell on Mozart's 25th Piano Concerto -- these triumphal sounds and images tumble off the screen at the start of Nathaniel Kahn's Two Hands: The Leon Fleisher Story.

But they swiftly give way to an empty Meyerhoff Symphony Hall with a vacant piano center-stage, as Fleisher speaks of the terrible time in 1964 when he was preparing for the most important tour of his life and he discovered that he couldn't use the fourth and fifth fingers on his right hand.

In a crystalline 17 minutes, Two Hands, a nominee for best short documentary at this month's Academy Awards, chronicles the Baltimorean's decades-long struggle to regain the use of his right hand and restart his full performing career. As Fleisher slowly walks onto the concert stage and takes his seat, not playing, Kahn conveys what it must have been like for a young master to view his instrument not as the vehicle of all his creative desires, but as an antagonist.

For director Kahn, best known for investigating his father, architect Louis Kahn, in the Oscar-nominated full-length documentary My Architect (2003), it's the equivalent of a prose master proving himself in verse. My Architect had a novelistic density and flow; Two Hands has the precision and rhythm of narrative poetry.

During a brisk, intense quarter of an hour, it illuminates both Fleisher's supple musicianship and the kinship of science and art. Scientist, novelist and politician C.P. Snow once called the divide between humanities and the sciences "The Two Cultures"; in Two Hands, the two cultures become one. The film focuses, of course, on Fleisher, but it has a second hero: Dr. Daniel B. Drachman, the Johns Hopkins neurologist who diagnosed Fleisher's condition, focal dystonia, and found a way to relieve it with targeted doses of Botox.

Dystonia is now a widely recognized condition, and Botox, of course, has become famous for cosmetic as well as medical treatments. But in 1990, when Drachman took on Fleisher's case, focal dystonia wasn't that well-known, and using Botox to circumvent it was unprecedented.

Kahn suggests that taking apart Fleisher's case and coming up with a remedy was as much an act of imagination as one of Fleisher's performances. In his pellucid picture-making, Kahn lavishes as much love on Drachman's multicolored MRIs as he does on Fleisher's scores.

But, "It's different from performing," says Drachman, from his Hopkins office. And he speaks from experience. He's a clarinetist; his eldest son Evan is a cellist; his father-in-law was cellist Gregor Piatigorsky; and his wife Jephta runs the Shriver Hall Concert Series. Still, he adds, "creativity is creativity, no matter where it is."

Kahn's celebration of creativity links My Architect and Two Hands. And here, it takes him in two directions at once.

"There is a nexus of art and science," says Kahn over the phone from his base in Philadelphia, "and I find both are woefully neglected in American life. To see these things come together in an incredible way in Leon's story, in which science is making art possible, knocked me out."

One difference between My Architect and Two Hands is that Kahn tries to keep himself out of this film. The only time he enters it is when he must list, for Fleisher, the various therapies and would-be cures the pianist experimented with during the initial wave of crisis that ended his second marriage. They include biofeedback, tiger balm and Scotch. It's the sole instance when Fleisher reveals the full extent of his grief and rage. He says he can't think of that stuff; he's put it all behind him.

It comes as a relief later on when we see him totally in sync at the piano, with his third wife, pianist Katherine Jacobson-Fleisher.

Making a fist

When someone plays with an expressiveness that transmits complex emotions from fingertips to keys, as Fleisher does, it's tempting to view his performance simply as some magical merger of talent and technique, says Kahn. "But it's also a biomechanical process. And to be around someone like Doctor Drachman, who understands how the fingers, brain and nerves work together and finds ways to fix it when they don't, inspires hope."

Kahn's film doesn't lay out a full medical analysis of how, in focal dystonia, the brain keeps sending messages for the fingers to fist up without any apparent stimulus. Kahn uses metaphor and similes to connect doctors studying brain scans or X-rays and musicians reading scores.

Yet Drachman says the movie is "terrific," and Fleisher treasures its mesh of imagery, music and biography. At one point in the film, he says that his perfectionist mother would try to straighten him out when he slept in a fetal position. He's amused to hear some viewers see a link between that and his later efforts to straighten his twisted fingers.

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