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THE GOULD VARIATIONS

Glenn Gould, the eccentric Canadian pianist and celebrated hermit, would be a tough nut for any filmmaker to crack. As a child prodigy who could play Bach before he could read, Gould sat next to the radio, transfixed by Toscanini. But later he announced: "I just don't like the sound of piano music that much." At age 31 this master proclaimed concert halls obsolete and took refuge for the rest of his life in the recording studio. He extolled artistic anonymity but drove hard bargains.

He once sang an entire opera to a friend over the telephone, and one of his fondest desires was to spend a winter north of the Arctic Circle. Stubbornly reclusive and intellectually complex, he defied categories and delighted in his own contradictions.

Gould's death in 1982, at age fifty, presents the tallest hurdle of all. How do you reconstruct the tangled progress of a genius who hosted a radio program called "The Idea of North," collected bottles of ketchup and left half his estate to the ASPCA, the other half to the Salvation Army?

Quebecois filmmaker Francois Girard has solved these daunting problems with cubist daring. Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould is exactly that--a series of finely wrought fragments that shed odd lights on aspects of a life full of foibles, triumphs, raptures and sulks.

Portrayed with quiet intensity and cool wit by the Canadian stage actor Colm Feore, Gould the sly ironist interviews himself in one piece (while his recording of Bach's Prelude from English Suite No. 5 plays on); Gould the hypochondriac obsesses on his extensive personal pharmacy in another (accompanied by his rendition of Hindemith); Gould the investor plays both Prokofiev and the stock market in a third. He's a man of many parts, and we glimpse most of them.

Appropriately, Girard's structural inspiration came from Bach's Goldberg Variations--one of Gould's best-known recordings. But the film's darting, mercurial quality is no mere trick. In contrast to the baroque overload of Ken Russell's composer biopics or the careless fictions of, say, Bird, this affectionate and inquiring portrait comes at its subject from dozens of oblique angles--none of them definitive, all of them useful. Here we get 32 pieces of the prickly, avant-garde mind that drove the classicist. Liberated from traditional narrative, Girard re-creates in his film the same sort of impatient, unpredictable energy that characterized Gould himself.

The pianist's tenacious groupies and a fair portion of the classical-music world continue to idealize their man. But he was also flesh and bone. The most impressive pieces of Girard's pastiche catch Feore/Gould in strange moments--tuning into and out of conversations (as well as Petula Clark's "Downtown") at a crowded truck stop, startling a wary chambermaid in Hamburg by putting a little Beethoven on the stereo, composing an advertisement for the personals section while Scriabin fills the soundtrack.

Girard includes documentary interviews with colleagues and family members (even these are happily out of kilter), an animation by Norman McLaren in which glowing spheres bound through space to the strains of The Well-Tempered Clavier, and a bizarre stretch of X-ray footage hinting at the subject's mortality--and our own.

What we don't see is an actual man sitting down to play an actual piano. Such literal-mindedness would have broken the film's dreamy spell. Instead Girard shows us the pianist soaking his arms in hot water before going onstage--a scene that is clinical and slightly alarming. The sink ledge, after all, is littered with bottles of capsules. In one of the most kinetic and beautiful of the 32 segments, we are taken inside Gould's Steinway, where hammers are pounding and strings are throbbing with the glories of Bach. In the segment called "45 Seconds and a Chair" Feore/ Gould simply stands next to the piano, listening intently to himself.

In the end, this inventive, witty, revolutionary film captures Glenn Gould's brilliance and pays homage to his elusiveness. If there's a single moment in which all its concerns come together, perhaps it is the fragment entitled "Questions With No Answers," in which the pianist can no better reply to assorted media questions about his career and feelings than to the woman who leaves a message on his answering machine. "Why did you stop calling me?" she plaintively asks.

Why? Why? Why? In a life defined by riddles, there are many speculations but no certain answers. Only Glenn Gould's music endures.

 
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