The rants and raves of a teenage cinephile who is just a little bit obsessed with Catherine O'Hara and Hayao Miyazaki.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993)

It's a bit embarrassing to admit that even though Glenn Gould is one of the hugest icons in the world of classical piano, my knowledge of him has always been relatively scarce. Of course, I'd been familiar with his recordings, especially those of Bach, as they are considered some of the finest in existence; and I was marginally familiar with some of his legendary quirks - namely, his compulsive aversion to performance and the trademark humming present in his playing. However, it was not until I finally watched Francois Girard's film "32 Short Films About Glenn Gould" that I was truly educated on the mysterious and ultimately fascinating figure that is Glenn Gould.

The film is pretty much in accordance with its rather descriptive title - the entire film is composed of thirty-two extremely short segments that together create an all-encompassing biopic of Glenn Gould's life. In reality, each of the segments is really less of a "short film" and more of a vignette, and each highlights a different aspect of Gould in a unique manner. Some of the segments are actual interviews with people who knew Gould, some are animations, and many are slightly more "traditional" biopic style portraits starring Colm Feore as Glenn Gould.

Far too often, biopics try to employ some kind of a structural gimmick to paint a full picture of their subject and they fail to either successfully execute the ambitious style or to tell a compelling story. However, "32 Short Films" is not one of those films. The style, which at first may appear like a cheap gimmick (since it is inspired by Glenn Gould's most famous recording of the 32 Goldberg Variations), actually works brilliantly to emphasize every fascinating piece of Gould's persona. And even while it's covering so many topics, it never feels overwhelming - in fact, each segment is just short enough for you to still want to know a little bit more, and this longing is what makes the film truly succeed as a whole. Glenn Gould is, in essence, someone who we can only know about through fragments and this film's fragmented structure preserves that sense of mystery.

Another necessary thing that the film does completely right is the integration of Gould's recordings into each of the short films. Each segment usually highlights one or two of his recordings and this aspect, perhaps, gives the film more emotional resonance than any other. Additionally, the transition of using his Baroque recordings in the first half to using the recordings of 20th century composers like Hindemith and Prokofiev in the later shorts is another subtle but perfect detail that truly heightens the power of Gould's transition into paranoia and illness.

The simple short "45 Seconds and a Chair", which is, surprisingly, 45 seconds long, simply features Bach's A Minor invention and one shot of a man sitting in a chair, simply listening to the piece. The simplicity of the music versus the listener makes this particular short one of the best and most memorable in the whole film.

Another standout is "Hamburg", in which we see Gould's chambermaid (Kate Hennig) react to a recording. Hennig's face is so expressive as she seems to live through all of her memories in the music. It's fantastic to witness, and one can relate to that sense of emotion since the music is so ridiculously wonderful. Of course, there are so many other fantastic shorts that I could rave about - "Practice" and "Passion According to Gould" are thought provoking and brilliantly directed and "Questions With No Answers" is really fascinating.

It's hard to find fault in the film, though its structure does prevent one from becoming completely emotionally involved. And, like most movies of this style, there are a few shorts that don't work quite as well as the others. However, overall the film is an absolute triumph. It's a fascinating, beautifully crafted and all-encompassing portrait of an absolutely essential figure in the history of music.

See it: If you even remotely like classical music. If you know nothing or everything about Glenn Gould. If you appreciate fantastic and memorable acting in small roles (Kate Hennig, what a performance!).

Skip it: If for some bizarre reason, you hate Canadians? Or if you cannot stand Classical music. I strongly disapprove of both of these reasons...but, hey. Haha.


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