Thursday 21 February 2013

Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993)

Until a week before I saw this film (or should I say, 'these films') I had never heard of Glenn Gould.  I received many recommendations during a merry weekend, but the title and the very brief description I heard from my friend and scientific advisor Fnord meant this was one of only two films I sought after from the ten or twenty titles I solicited.

Glenn Gould was a concert pianist and this is a set of 31 short films (averaging 3 minutes apiece, plus or minus three minutes) about him and his life.  Being a few years dead, he himself does not appear, not even in photo.  What we have are dramatisations, vignettes, monologues, snatches of animation, and interviews (in English and French) with those who knew or met him.

Glenn Gould coming to a resolution

Since the movie is divided so clearly into many short segments, it has the feel of one of my favourite novels, 'Bear v Shark' (Chris Bachelder, 2002) which is made up of 100 very short chapters, typically only one or two pages in length.  Snippets and snapshots, ideas rather than full scenes.  Each of the 31 films here is given a chapter-heading.  Few if any of the dramatisations give us major events in Gould's life, preferring to show us quiet or private moments, one side of a telephone conversation or, on several occasions, Glenn Gould listening.  Almost the whole soundtrack is Glenn Gould on the piano, either supporting or competing with the contents of the scene.

I like this, as a way of telling the story of a person, more than any biopic I've seen.  In my comments on 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928) I talked about how 'I'm Not There' (2007) broke Bob Dylan into seven characters to examine his different facets.  This managing something similar, but without divorcing the parts from the whole.  The scenes point in from myriad directions but in a manner less fanciful than that other film.  A lot, perhaps everything, can be shown about Glenn Gould in these 31 attempts far more quickly and economically than if these 90 minutes were given over to more straightforward structure.  For one thing, that would require more characters than one; in this form Glenn Gould is the film's only focus, and any other face or voice is likely to enter and leave his life in under six minutes, never to be spoken of again.

Glenn Gould on the telephone again

It's remarkably solitary.  Many scenes with the one character, thinking, listening, often being highly sociable and articulate but only over the telephone.  Refusing to speak about his music, which speaks for itself.  The only extended dialogue in the film, and my favourite of the chapters, is 'Gould Meets Gould', a dramatised interview in which both sides were scripted by the real Gould.  It shows Glenn, his voice as sonorous and pedantic as ever, leading a highly-strung interviewer (of the same voice) through certain fascinating ideas, theories of art, the ways he thinks and works - his insistent dislike of the ratio of one performer to a whole roomful of audience, for instance; Gould favoured a more intimate relationship with the audience-member, and so abandoned public performances in favour of studio recordings.  The interview is conducted at break-neck pace in a wired-up church, and the two parties (Glenn Gould pacing, the interviewer head in hands) are lit only from behind, their faces in so much shadow as to be invisible to the viewer.  All this dominated by his thunderous piano.

I feel I have rather a lot in common with Glenn Gould.  Perhaps anybody watching this film would come away feeling equal affinity with the man (as is so readily the case with any biography which really gets of the heart of a real person in favour of caricature or easy answers).  Nonetheless, I feel compelled by Glenn Gould's thoughts and philosophies, ways of working and talking; I feel some kinship with his troubled hair; his habitual solitude balanced against a capacity to be extremely talkative and rhetorical, away from people.

'Gould Meets McLaren'
An animated sequence of spheres

Something I always forget about biographies is that the main character dies at the end.  I once made the mistake of reading a biography of Gilbert and Sullivan, in which they both died, which was more than I was prepared to deal with.  The films hardly seemed arranged chronologically, but they did begin with Glenn Gould's beginning and ended with his death and legacy (the latter of which was some consolation, at least), and though I'd only known him for an hour and a half I was more upset than I'd expected.

This might be my favourite of the films I've watched for this project so far.  I once made a video documentary about a singer-songwriter friend of mine, Tom Hollingworth, and wish I'd had the sharpness of mind to have made it in the fashion of these 31 films.  I might actually have been able to say something interesting about him.

P.S. When I made mention of this film to my mother she gave a nostalgic cry of 'oh, Glenn Gould,' so my dearth of knowledge of the man is probably down to my ignorance rather than his obscurity.  In my defence, there was never a year when we both of us walked the Earth.

P.P.S. I know I've already covered 1993 with 'Jurassic Park', but this film was something special, and I was unwilling to ignore it.  Since it seems quite as much documentary as dramatic biopic I'm content to count it toward Achievement 6, my intent to see documentaries from ten decades.

P.P.P.S. Come back this weekend when I'll be commenting on a documentary about the life and work of another Canadian artist, 'Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr Leonard Cohen' (1965)

The DVD isn't so Region 1 as Amazon might claim, and I'd recommend it gladly.  It's pretty cheap, too.

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