Monday, April 30, 2012

32 Short Films About Glenn Gould (Girard. 1993)

"My mother tells me that by five years old I had decided definitively to become a concert pianist. I think she had decided some time earlier."


Every audience is familiar with the idea of the biopic. Seemingly more so in recent times, studios have poured money into the life rights of almost any person with a somewhat interesting story. In the last ten years there have been movies made that visually narrate the stories of interesting figures ranging from Diane Arbus to George W. Bush. Though a biopic has an obvious purpose, to encapsulate a person's story, many of them go about telling the story in a secular, formulaic way. 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould does not conform to these conventions, and I believe the film benefits from that.

I suppose the first thing I should do is fill any unknowing reader in on why Glenn Gould is important enough to warrant his own movie. Gould was a prodigy on the piano and became one of the biggest touring sensations in history. After a catastrophic rise to fame, the eccentric Canadian decided to abruptly retire and disappear into a life a seclusion to focus mainly on studio recordings. He was widely known, as seen in the film, for his many strange habits and ticks that included strict temperature regulation and audible groans while playing in the recording studio. Gould was also entirely afraid of human contact. He never shook hands and was often seen wearing gloves that supported his obsession with personal health. Long story short, Glenn Gould was a weird dude. He died at age 50 from complications after a massive stroke.

With a life story like that it is amazing that the average up, then down, then up again biopic formula was not used in making 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. Rather, Girard choose, as the title implies, to split the narrative into 32 non-secular vignettes that range from his unhappiness as a child to his late-life infatuation with death. In an original twist, the movie switches between actual documentary with interviews from peers and a fictional depiction of his more unusual encounters where Gould is subtly played by Colm Feore. As Gould, Feore perfectly captures the mental obscurity that made the pianist so mysterious. In one interesting short, Gould can be seen passionately humming and conducting while listening to his own playback in the studio. Though his eyes are shut, his passion resonates through his face. I would hazard to say that, if you could see them on screen, his feet would be hovering slightly off the ground.

In the 20th of the vignettes, "Gould Meets McLaren", artist Norman McLaren illustrates a mesmerizing tribute over Gould's music. The scene is the only one that does not address a specific concept, yet it fits perfectly with the rest of the shorts due to how reminiscent it seems to be of Gould's mental state. In it, all we see are spheres moving, spinning or molding into one another. This, to me, must have been what it was like to look into the man's brain. Though it was always working, and making valuable art, the movement never stopped. And it became stronger and faster as the music dominated more of his life. 

My favorite short is the 9th one shown in the film, "The L.A. Concert". This early scene is a recreation of the faithful night that Gould retired from touring. In the same vein as The Beatles, Gould wanted to focus on making the music that he wanted to make. And though this was the start of a tragic downfall, the scene itself has an understated humor in the delivery. The world famous pianist announces he will no longer be touring by writing it in an autograph for an elderly fan. Feore's delivery in this scene is hilariously nonchalant. You would not guess that the main character in the film is making the decision that would have the greatest impact on his professional life. Instead, it is just another day in the absurd, somewhat selfish, office that is Gould's mind.

32 Short Films About Glenn Gould dramatically opens with the title character standing, virtually undetectably, in the distance of the Canadian tundra. As the scene carries on in awkward silence, Gould gets closer with every second. Obviously symbolic, the audience reads this immediately to mean that they are about to witness an extremely personal film. That is what makes it stand out as a biopic. Usually after watching a retelling of a cultural figure's life you do not leave knowing anything more about the subject. But Girard was intent on leaving a deeper impression on the audience by switching the convention of normal storytelling. There are genuine moments of fantastic acting and drama mixed in with dark comedy and educational documentary. In the style lies the substance. Everything about Glenn Gould's music, life and mind would lead you to believe that he had substance in abundance.

32 Short Films About Glenn Gould: A- 
 


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