THIRTY TWO SHORT FILMS ABOUT GLENN GOULD ****. Directed by Francois Girard. Produced by Niv Fichman. Written by Francois Girard & Don McKellar. Photography, Alain Dostie. Editing, Gaetan Huot. A Canadian production released by the Samuel Goldwyn Company. 90 minutes. No rating (would be G).
What luck! After several weeks in Europe centered on fascinating film festivals, I came home to a stack of mostly morose reviews of summer movie releases. But my very first picture, "Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould," turned out to be the kind that would make its mark in any major international festival -- and in fact did, with a special citation at the 1993 Toronto Film Festival and its four Genie Awards (the Canadian Oscars), including Best Picture and Best Director.
Glenn Gould (1932-1982) was, of course, that great Canadian musician, a world-class pianist who made his public debut at age 14 and quickly went from "wunderkind" to international superstar.
He was a maverick prodigy, known as much for his musical and physical idiosyncrasies (wearing an overcoat in the summer heat, playing with mittens with cut off fingers, humming while performing) as for his huge talent proper. In 1964, after nine years of concertizing, Gould suddenly announced that he would stop playing in public and concentrate on making recordings, for reasons that struck many as extravagant, but which were, by Gould's reasoning, entirely cogent.
Gould made over 80 recordings. He also spread his abilities far and wide: he wrote prolifically on music and the media, did radio programs on musicians and "sound documentaries," scripts for television, composed, and engaged into many other artistic activities.
His originalities were fodder for the press but, as Tim Page writes in his introduction to his "The Glenn Gould Reader" : "Gould's public image is misleading; he is too often portrayed as a misanthrope, music's answer to Howard Hughes. Nothing could be further from the truth for Gould cared deeply about people -- albeit from a certain distance -- and took immense joy in life." Page goes on to quote Gould's biographer Geoffrey Payzant who called Gould "an exceedingly superior person, friendly and considerate, He is not really an eccentric, nor is he egocentric. Glenn Gould is a person who has found out how he wants to live and is doing precisely that."
It is this immensely complex personality that the film is trying to capture through a series of 32 creative vignettes done in documentary style, and "starring" (as Gould) the exceptionally talented Colm Feore, famous for his roles at the Stratford, Ontario Shakespeare Festival, whose Associate Director he is. (He squeezed in this film role between performing three plays per six-day week at Stratford).
Taking its clue from Bach's 30 Goldberg Variations -- one of Gould's performing and recording triumphs -- the movie adds two and gives us 32 eloquent glimpses of Glenn Gould, most of them with Gould-performed piano music, much of it Bach but also Beethoven, Richard Strauss, Sibelius, Prokofiev, Scriabin, Hindemith, and Schoenberg. There is also the overture of "Tristan and Isolde" conducted by Arturo Toscanini and listened to on the radio by an enthralled young Gould; a string quartet playing Gould's fugue-like Opus 1; and Petula Clark (one of Gould's favorites, along with Barbra Streisand) singing "Downtown."
The 32 filmlets are fascinating, imaginative and to the point, even when they seem abstract. In their non-chronological order they constitute an homage to Gould and an appetite-whetting introduction to the man and his art.
Each viewer-listener is bound to be affected in different ways. For me, the most touching section is perhaps Number 6. In a hotel room in Hamburg, Gould -- a self-admitted hypochondriac-- cancels his concerts because of chronic bronchitis. He receives a recording he has made of Beethoven's Sonata # 13. Gently, he insists that a chambermaid sit and listen while the record plays the Allegro. Uneasy and puzzled at first, the woman gradually feels the magic of the music, her expression changes to allegro, and, at the end she offers her "Danke schoen" to Gould. That's all.
In another segment (from a "High Fidelity" article), with the humor that characterized Gould (and almost all great beings), Gould interviews himself. Elsewhere, as he is getting ready to go on stage in Los Angeles, the wonderfully allusive, underplayed sequence hints at the pressures of public appearances and climaxes with Gould autographing a stage-hand's program and adding "the final concert."
Gouid's polyphonic, "contrapuntal radio" speech documentary, "The Idea of North," is given visualization. It puzzles at first, until we realize that this paean to frozen wastes stands as a metaphor for basic Gouldian concerns: isolation, creativity and purity. On the other hand, segments about Gould's pills, all-night phone calls to friends (some of whom never met in person), or succinct, illuminating interviews with friends (Yehudi Menuhin, French violinist Bruno Monsaingeon, et al.) are crystal clear.
This tour-de-force "documentary" of fiction solidly anchored in fact cannot be "Everything you Wanted to Know About Gould but Were Too Uninformed to Ask," yet in a mere hour-and-a-half, much of the essential Gould emerges.
The film sent me rushing to Gould's writings in "The Glenn Gould Reader," (Knopf, 1984). Its 473 pages mesmerize with their originality, lucidity, encyclopedic knowledge of things musical and para-musical. Even when technical texts are well beyond the comprehension of lay readers, Gould's intellectual and narrative powers, wit and facility with language, are a marvel. You often think that you are reading The Best of the New Yorker rather than Musical America or Piano Quarterly. And you cannot but feel great sadness at the disappearance of this extraordinary man at age 50.