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Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould

Columbia TriStar Home Video

Starring Colm Feore

Written by François Girard and Don McKellar
Directed by François Girard


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Review by Mark Bourne                    


"My personal philosophy of interviewing — and I've done quite a bit of it on the air, as you perhaps know — is that the most illuminating disclosures derive from areas only indirectly related to the interviewee's line of work.... for example, in the course of preparing radio documentaries, I've interviewed a theologian about technology, a surveyor about William James, an economist about pacifism and a housewife about acquisitiveness in the art market... It's been far more instructive to talk with Pablo Casals, for example, about the concept of the zeitgeist, which, of course, is not unrelated to music.... Or to Leopold Stokowski about the prospect for interplanetary travel, which is — I think you'll agree, and Stanley Kubrick notwithstanding — a bit of a digression."

— From the short film "Gould Meets Gould"

Any human being is like the score to a symphony: a composition of fragmented parts, independent melodies, themes and variations, individual tiny dots and lines that somehow manage to form a complete, harmonious unit. At the cineplexes, most biopics treat their subjects the way an audience hears recorded music, with less attention to the parts than to the harmonious (or not) whole. What places the 1994 Canadian Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould above the typical "movie about some eccentric guy" is that it knows full well that its subject was a man of parts — brilliant, contradictory, enigmatic, sometimes child-like, distant, erudite, exasperating, quietly harmonious parts. It gives us just enough of those parts to have us feeling that we've sampled only isolated segments of a symphony, but what a splendidly eccentric sampling it is, and if this movie has us afterward taking action to experience more of that symphony through other means, then it has done its job successfully.

A child prodigy who remembered being able to read music before he could read words, Glenn Gould grew to become the world's foremost Bach interpreter, Canada's most celebrated classical pianist, and a national hero. In 1964, at the height of his international performance career, he abruptly retired from the concert stage. Gould spent his remaining years in the controlled environment of studio recording, playing the stock market like a Wall Street insider, and composing philosophical musings for radio and television. In 1982 he died of a stroke at age 50.

The winner of four 1994 Genie Awards (the Canadian "Oscar"), including Best Picture and Best Director, Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould isn't a conventional biopic, or an "art house" documentary in a style that's supposed to be as inherently virtuous as strolling through the National Portrait Gallery. Rather, director François Girard, co-writer Don McKellar, and actor Colm Feore give us interpretations of Gould through thirty-two modular vignettes. Through them, Gould unfolds like an origami sculpture we're only permitted to view one fold at a time.

These vignettes come linked together by a soundtrack of Gould's exquisite recordings, and their construction mirrors the piece that Gould made his own, Bach's Goldberg Variations. (One of the things Thirty-Two Short Films reveals is that a portion of Gould's Goldberg Variations was included in the Voyager Interstellar Record now hurtling out of our solar system toward interstellar space, where it will remain in deep freeze for, quite probably, hundreds of millions of years. So it's likely to outlive the existence of humanity on this planet.)

Some segments are less than one minute long ("45 Seconds and a Chair," for instance). Some are realistic, recreating moments from Gould's life or giving us interviews with people who knew him. Others are imaginary realistic moments created to illuminate a singular essence. "Truck Stop" takes us to a roadside diner where Gould is apparently well known, and where he sits quietly listening to the contrapuntal conversations happening around him, his fingers gently moving like an orchestra conductor finding the rhythms of basic human expression. "The L.A. Concert" enacts a few moments before Gould's (unanticipated) final concert performance, culminating in a revealing moment of contact with a stagehand.

A few are humorous, such as Gould composing a prank personals ad. Others are moving (a Hamburg chambermaid being introduced to sublime musical expression). In a piece scripted by Gould himself, "Gould Meets Gould," he literally argues with himself about the roles of artist and audience. Some are abstract, such as "Diary of One Day" — animated X-rays of Gould's hands, skull, and bloodstream — or "Gould Meets McLaren," with its Fantasia-like computer-animated imagery, or "CD318," with the camera gliding sensuously through the interior of Gould's concert grand piano in performance. "Pills" is simply a narrated chain of close-ups of the alarming variety of medications the hypochondriacal Gould consumed late in his life.

By design Thirty-Two Short Films isn't a deeply penetrating portrait. There's plenty it does not reveal. Gould's sex life, for example, or whether he had any intimate relationships. In 1999, Girard told Salon magazine:

Gould was a very rich, very good subject. I was fascinated by the mystery around his work and life, and that fascination only grew. And I believe that the film protects that mystery — I hope, nourishes that mystery — more than explaining it. I didn't want it to be explicative or reductive. If it works, it's as a further resonance of who he was and what he did.

As played with deft clarity by Colm Feore — long-time star of productions at the Stratford Festival Theatre in Ontario — Gould is a passionate and private man who lives his life on his own terms, knowing since he was a boy precisely what those terms are. He keeps the world at arm's length, yet maintains a sense of humor while insulating himself physically and psychologically from others, even those he is closest to. His later years are orchestrated around his need to communicate a deep reservoir of thoughts and impressions through technological intermediaries such as the telephone or broadcast studio. Feore plays this peculiar detachment without turning Gould into merely an anti-social savant. For those of us who come to Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould with little or no familiarity with its subject, it's easy to forget that that's not Gould himself on the screen, and that's as good a review as an actor can strive for.

Taken as an impressionistic mosaic, Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould is a celebratory exercise in character study that deconstructs a genius by focusing on small, human moments while never attempting to reduce it subject to merely a bag of eccentricities or broody biopic clichés. As they did in 1998's The Red Violin, Girard and McKellar sought to connect modern audiences with classical music via a movie that avoids the pitfalls of being precious or snobbily intellectual.

Thirty-Two Short Films is not the last word on its subject, nor is it as definitive a treatment of Gould as a conventional documentary would be. But on its own terms it succeeds in introducing Gould to new audiences who might not be attracted to a "PBS approach." Its pieces elegantly coalesce into a novel means of getting to know a man who succeeded brilliantly at being unknowable.

The DVD

Columbia Tri-Star's Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould hits DVD with a fine transfer from pristine source material, so the image quality is flawless. The two-sided disc offers both a widescreen format (1.85:1 anamorphic) and a cropped full-screen "reformatted to fit your TV" version.

Because Gould's Bach piano interpretations are the blood vessels that course through all the movie's parts, it's vital that Thirty-Two Short Films possess a soundtrack that takes advantage of the clarity and range the DVD format provides. And the good news is that the DD 2.0 Stereo Surround audio is superb. Some of the thirty-two short films have no sound other than Gould's work, and throughout the movie it's gorgeous. You don't need to be a classical piano aficionado to appreciate the supple mastery you're listening to. (I'm certainly not one, but the fact that I'm at this moment listening to my new CD of Gould's Goldberg Variations as I type tells you something.)

As for extras, this disc holds the usual assortment: a theatrical trailer, talent files, and a brief production notes pull-out. The lack of a commentary track by (at least) Girard is a shame. However, if the ideal purpose behind any DVD release is to provide the finest quality edition of the movie packaged therein, to ensure that the movie is able to gain new audiences or remind those who already love it that it's an experience worth exploring again, then in that regard this edition of Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould succeeds like a maestro.

—Mark Bourne



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