Everything that is distinctive and irresistible about “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould"--its audacity, its nervy playfulness, how smart and confident a motion picture it is--comes through from its first scene.
It’s a deceptive episode, simple yet exhilarating. The camera is motionless, fixed on a frozen landscape, dazzling and empty. Then a figure appears at the far distance, walking toward us but taking his own time about it. The closer he gets, and it takes nearly two minutes (an eternity in film terms) for him to arrive, the more aware we become of the rising music in the background, the liquid, intoxicating piano playing of the man himself, Glenn Gould.
A consummate musician who shocked the concert world by abandoning live performance for recordings when he was only 32 and who’d given layers of new meanings to the concept of the eccentric virtuoso by the time he died from a stroke at age 50 in 1982, Gould was too original a figure to fit into a conventional filmed bio, and Canadian director Francois Girard, who co-wrote the screenplay with Don McKellar, has not even attempted to give him one.
Instead, Girard has orchestrated (and that really does seem to be the best word) a film infused with its subject’s singular spirit. A window into what it might be like to be a genius that is as off-center and uncompromising as the man himself, this is that rare piece of work that not only knows exactly what it wants to do but also just how to go about doing it.
The concept is to assemble a portrait of Gould as if it were a mosaic, combining unrelated facets of his life, personality and career. That there are 32 of these is a nod to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Gould’s debut recording and the music behind that opening scene. The episodes range in length from less than a minute to more than 10, each one self-contained and carefully set off from the others with its own on-screen title.
If this sounds schematic, the reality is the opposite. For after “Lake Simcoe,” which straightforwardly deals with Gould’s sheltered youth as a prodigy sure of his future by age 5, the filmmakers have been quite thoughtful about the points they want to make about Gould and lively and inventive in how they’ve illustrated them.
To indicate his interests outside of music, for instance, there is a sly comic sequence called “The Tip” showing Gould manipulating the stock market, plus an excerpt from “The Idea of North,” a dizzying sound collage documentary made for radio. To show how others felt about him and his numerous peculiarities, real-life friends are interviewed, while actors playing journalists demonstrate the kind of inanities the man who treasured solitude had to put up with.
First and finally, though, there is always the music, the center of Gould’s life. His hypnotic playing of everything from Bach to Schoenberg hovers in the background of about three-quarters of the sequences, and the film casually utilizes an impressive variety of ways to convey the music in visual terms, most memorably in “CD 318,” where we are taken inside Gould’s favorite instrument to see exactly how its sounds are made.
It is in the showcasing of the passion with which Gould approached music that “Thirty Two Short Films” surpasses itself. In sequences like “Hamburg,” where the pianist, loping around a hotel room like Groucho Marx, insists that a chamber maid share his pleasure in his latest recording, to “Passion According to Gould,” where he goes into a pure trance at the caress of his own music, the often-cliched joy of creation has rarely been so well and beautifully put on screen.
For a film this ambitious to be successful, the execution must match the ideas, and it does. Alain Dostie’s measured, eloquent camera work provides crystalline images that are often hypnotic, and the Girard-McKellar script, which makes extensive use of ironic voice-over adapted from Gould’s own words, conveys the wry and acerbic sensibility of a man who felt “the ideal audience-to-artist relationship is a one-to-zero relationship.”
Not every actor can pull off a character like Gould, simultaneously self-assured and erratic, and “Thirty Two Short Films” would be difficult to imagine without Colm Feore, a mainstay of Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival, in the title role. In addition to a confident and insinuating voice, Feore has the passionate spirit essential to playing Gould, a spectral wraith as transfixed by the sounds he created as the actor is by the opportunity to convey that obsession.
In the end, the great thing about “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould” is that rather than creating a desire to meet this formidable individual, it makes you feel as if in some way you actually had. “Gould was inexplicably gifted,” biographer Otto Friedrich wrote, “with a phenomenal natural talent for playing the piano.” Exactly what that means is what this film is so marvelous at conveying.
* MPAA rating: Unrated. Times guidelines: It includes mature themes but no sex or violence.
‘Thirty Two Short Films
About Glenn Gould’
Colm Feore: Glenn Gould
A Rhomus Media Inc. production, with the participation of Telefilm Canada and Ontario Film Development Corp., in association with the National Film Board of Canada, Canadian Broadcasting Corp., Societe Radio-Canada, Nos-Television, RTP-Portugal, Oy Yleisradio AB, Glenn Gould Limited, released by the Samuel Goldwyn Co. Director Francois Girard. Producer Niv Fichman. Screenplay Francois Girard, Don McKellar. Cinematographer Alain Dostie. Editor Gaetan Huot. Costumes Linda Muir. Location Sound Stuart French. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
* Playing at Samuel Goldwyn Pavilion Cinemas, Westside Pavilion, Pico Boulevard between Westwood and Overland, West Los Angeles. (310) 475-0202 .