Great Film: “Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould”, An Essential Meditation on Film as Medium

Should film exist? Is film an antithesis—if not a destruction—of art? It has threatened painting, theatre and literature with obsolescence, just as recording technology has dragged us away from classical music towards the (I admit) less refined genres of rock, pop, etc. Some would argue that film democratizes art, that it allows for an exchange of perspectives across space and time without the barriers of discipline, privilege and well-educated condescension; others, that film preserves what ought not be preserved. Theatre has shown essential disdain for filming technology because it is meant to be a life experience among actors and audience—ethereal, singular, unrepeatable, not entirely memorable, what Mikhail Bakhtin called a “once-occurrent Being-as-event.” The late great playwright Sarah Kane proclaimed, “Theatre has no memory, which makes it the most existential of the arts.” By contrast, cinema is memory—perhaps a memory too perfect for man. It makes history laughably easy; it has turned actors from skilled laborers into celebrities. If we contrast “existence” with “essence” (never mind whether one precedes the other), then film may purport to be an “essential” art in the sense that it is man’s greatest opportunity to be immortal, to attain the height of nature, yet film may as well be a mockery of nature, a conceit, a cheat. Theatre stabilizes narrative in one place and time, and there you have to be to view it. You can see a filmed narrative anywhere at anytime, but at what cost?

The life, work and philosophy of Glenn Gould are indispensable hand grenades to this discussion. Gould (1932-82) was a Canadian pianist best known for his Bach interpretations. In April 1964, he made the still-controversial decision to retire from concert performances for good and distribute his music only through recordings. Overtime, he expanded on this practice, limiting his communication with fans of his music entirely to the media—film, print, radio, telephone. He was a recluse, but not to the extent of shunning the masses as Salinger did and as Pynchon does. In fact, his rapport with the media was voluminous. He was candid and sincere about his approach to music, he demonstrated a broad academic mind in a brainy but relatable way, and he showed a wry self-awareness towards his unusual work ethic. The fifth of François Girard’s Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould shows two Goulds; the pianist Gould fields questions from the interviewer Gould. (This is based on a real-life self-catechism that he wrote for High Fidelity in 1974.) In this soliloquy, he justifies the most critical decision of his career thusly: “The ideal audience-to-artist relationship is a one-to-zero relationship. […] The artist should be granted anonymity. He should be permitted to operate in secret, as it were, unconcerned with or better still unaware of the marketplace’s demands, which […] given enough indifference on the part of enough artists will simply disappear. Given that disappearance, the artist will then abandon his false sense of public responsibility, and his audience or ‘public’ will relinquish its role of servile dependency. […] They’ll make contact, but on a much more meaningful level.”

That’s a dynamic bit of writing, and it takes talent and cojones for a filmmaker and an actor to translate it to filmic dialogue—and translated as brilliantly as it is here, it’s fraught with meaning and deserves scrutiny time and again. Where most artists have seen technology as a threat, Gould embraced it. (It’s a shame he didn’t lived to see the Internet; it would’ve fascinated him to no end.) It would be plenty to say that he saw recorded sound as the equalizing force by which mentor and protégé, old and young, rich and poor, and giver and receiver could “make contact” on the same “level,” yet the film goes further than that. The soliloquy suggests, with much chutzpah, that the ways in which technology is often suspected of ruining art are not abuses of art inasmuch as they are abuses of technology—that tech not only has the potential but is meant to defy arbitrary standards of marketability, not to facilitate them. In characterizing the media—and hence the film—as “zero” (viz. zero-dimensional), it confesses the solipsism inherent in having a man interview himself, yet that alone hints at that man’s willingness to question every one of his own beliefs, to butt heads with his own alter ego, to cancel himself out and make that “zero” feel authentic. I’ve seen few films confront the paradox of their medium—the tricks of the eye; the defiance of history, memory and their decay; the ability to do the impossible and reflect nature in all of its zero-like intangibility—as meaningfully as this film does. The genre of the biopic has not produced that many good films—as life is often too broad and complex to perfectly fit the focus and commerciality of cinema—and 32SFAGG is often brought up as an example of how to do a biopic, and rightly so. This is how Gould would’ve wanted to be depicted: in cinema, told without convention. Look at how proudly the film wears its cinematic badge in its title. It earns all of that pride.

The film is exactly what its title says: thirty-two vignettes in the life of its subject. It never tries to cohere as one uniform narrative because the rhythm of life does not work that way. The structure is a riff on Bach’s Goldberg Variations, of which there are thirty, bookended by two arias. Indeed, the film is keen on fleshing out cinema as a corollary of audio editing, on which Gould was able to (re)construct his piano interpretations to his liking—in a way, to mime reality and temporality, to copy God’s essential-natural creation, not just in His apparent perfection but also in His (let’s face it) random, arbitrary lunacy. (I’d add that Gould and God are only two letters apart, but that’d be a stretch.) In the sixteenth episode, “Truck Stop,” Gould listens to three mundane conversations at once at the title location, his ears rearranging the voices into a Bach-like cantus firmus. By the next episode, he has developed this concept into his radio documentary, The Idea of North, which juxtaposes nostalgic Northern Canadian voices into similar polyphonies; this was a prelude to musique concrète and thus to electronic music. Language here is not as important as the innate musicality of human voice—the basic, unreadable God-like beauty of sound. Robert Altman is considered the forerunner of melding voices in cinema, yet I’ve always found his hodgepodges of dialogue shallow and self-indulgent, even patronizing, rushed in their execution, jam-packing too many half-baked characters and plots, expecting the audience to follow them all and insulting its intelligence in the process. Girard’s (read: Gould’s) use of this method is far superior: he eases us in with one voice, lets it carry on for a while, then adds another, then a third, and he makes their words casual enough to be poetic yet ethereal; they can afford the mishmash. Bear in mind, too, that this is all in the service of not the speakers but rather the one silent figure—the listener, the conductor, the musician. It uses language but does not depend on it, as its focus is on the music.

Colm Feore’s performance as Gould, in my book, is arguably cinema’s greatest portrayal of Asperger’s syndrome, which Gould is speculated to have had, and which I’m convinced he had. I have Asperger’s and have studied it, so I know what I’m talking about. The depiction of those on the autism spectrum in film at large has most of the same horrendous issues as its depiction of all minorities. Chiefly, films tend to define our identities entirely within the prism of our being autistic; stereotype us as socially inept geniuses; and view the central experience of autism as essentially tragic, marked by bullying and doomed to seclusion, if not redeemed by an all-too-easy Hollywood happy ending. Rubbish. Having said all that, please forgive me for branching out to portraits of potential Asperger’s—to work on which the lens of autism theory can be extrapolated—and risking a misdiagnosis. The fact is: I connect with Feore in this. One of the most common misconceptions of Asperger’s is that us Aspies don’t understand social behavior. We do; it’s how we behave in response to it that makes us different. We don’t often jibe with the tacit social rules that people rely on to act, react and interact. This attitude has its pros and cons. Feore’s work proves that Gould truly knew the role that music and sound took in society—namely, the way people interacted with their aural selves—and he reveals this in long, circuitous, literary passages of mono- and dialogue (of which the above is a useful example) that he makes accessible and riveting. His line deliveries are firm, forthright, rapid, verbose, a little aloof—as is natural with Asperger’s—yet also inflected with enough mystery, stoicism, and (when appropriate) playfulness to hold the audience’s attention, even if not everything is grasped. Such work demands and rewards multiple viewings.

The challenges of playing Gould are formidable. How can one evoke so much intellectual passion from such Aspergerian rigidity and peculiarity? Feore accomplishes it through old-fashioned acting—through the deployment of his entire body and his absolute commitment to the role. The third chapter, “Forty-Five Seconds and a Chair,” is just that: a forty-five-second slow zoom in on Gould sitting in a chair, his posture perfect for a pianist, while an excerpt of his recording plays on the soundtrack. Curiously, Feore is not seen playing piano once in the film, which makes sense: who could command a piano like Gould? As it is, Feore doesn’t need that embellishment. In that one take, we can feel him conjuring the exact mood of Gould at the piano. All that’s lacking, really, is his fingers on the keys, but we can imagine that, and the brief scene—pointless in lesser hands—is made gripping by the inconspicuous force of its lead actor. 32SFAGG embraces its fragmentation, its perception of life in separate spheres as opposed to in wholes. In chapter nine, “The L.A. Concert,” we see Gould backstage preparing for what will be his final public appearance, soaking his arms in scalding hot water (as he did in life), and we trust that Feore made sure the water was that hot during filming. It’s only in the remainder of the chapter that we realize—in seeing Gould interacting with some fans, weirdly but with enough steadiness to demand esteem—that in those seconds cleansing himself, he silently reached his decision to shun concerts. The image and the thought, what is seen and heard, are often detached if not disharmonious in this film. The poignant tenth chapter, “CD318,” shows us the inside bridges of Gould’s Steinway as he plays his onstage swansong on it, and there’s an uncanny sense that we could add this visual neatly to that of him sitting ramrod in the chair from before. The film is a puzzle, made for us to solve.

It may be bizarre for me to use the word “disharmonious” in praise of a film about music, but Girard made his film that way to underscore the extent to which music and infinite other things are spliced up and reorganized in the media. The eighteenth segment, “Questions with No Answers,” is a series of shots, mostly from Gould’s point of view, in which interviewers ask him the banal inquiries of the easily digestible pop entertainment industry. Gould is off-camera; we of course don’t hear his answers, but the questions are so banal that we can assume he can’t answer the questions in any way that would appease the narrow-minded pop media he faces. The questions provide enough—plenty, even—for a narrative progression, which sees the interrogators getting increasingly frustrated and befuddled with their subject’s tenacity, to the point where one of them asks upfront, “Are you homosexual?” Multiple segments after show Gould on his own, answering unheard questions on his own terms, but generously. Question and answer don’t depend on but rather complement each other, and their clichéd structure is jazzed up and given new life. There’s something else, though: the audience here sees private moments that no one in the world really ever saw, of the pianist alone in his home or in one of many nondescript phone booths, as secluded as he wished to be, bundled up in his cap, jacket and gloves. It feels like we’re watching something sacred—a genius mentally at work—but it doesn’t once feel like we’re intruding because the film and Feore are so warm, so inviting, always intriguing—and because what is seen does not matter as much as how it all stems from and complements what is heard. With Gould gone, all that remains of him are his sounds and ideas, and some images, which I’m guessing are not as valuable as the sounds. The research that Feore must have done for this role is baffling, and it pays off because of how much trust he and Girard place in the voice, music and oral wisdom of Gould to blossom into cinema.

There’s much more—so much more that I was considering reviewing each one of these thirty-two short films as sovereign standalone works and may yet still do that. There are vivid, appropriately abstract animations—including one that depicts, succinctly and hauntingly, Gould’s growing dependence on prescription drugs; a mystical death announcement; moving reifications of Gould’s dream to see the Arctic; a vibrant reading of a personal ad; a startling, out-of-left-field mini-stock market drama involving a Saudi oil tycoon that Gould gets mixed up in by accident; and documentary recollections from those who knew Gould in real life, of which this is my favorite: “Today, I had a customer phone me up and say, ‘Can you come tomorrow to tune my piano?’ Glenn Gould used to give me two or three months notice, and I respected that. And I’m very thankful for knowing him.” The film concludes with Feore’s voice-over stating that the Voyager Golden Record, which NASA sent into outer space in 1977 to communicate the existence of Earth and humans to potential outsiders, includes Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C major from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier as played by none other than Gould. It’s a fitting honor for one of music history’s greatest men and most inspirational Aspergerians—to be able to connect, through recording, to life forms we may not yet know of; to make them an audience and an equal to man; to communicate what earthly life and nature are like in all of their imperfections and colliding fragments. And if we make another record like that, this film better be on it.

Great Film: “Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould”, An Essential Meditation on Film as Medium