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Portraits of the artist
A musical genius, pianist Glenn Gould was individualistic in the extreme, but his spirit is perfectly captured in a new ﬁlm. Trevor Johnston applauds 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould and meets its director, Francois Girard.
Even for a Canadian, he sure was one weird dude. Hypersensitive to changes of temperature, he donned overcoats and a woolly mufﬂer even at the height of summer. A conﬁrmed hypochondriac. he carried a shelf’s worth of pills around with him at all times. Controversially, he retired from the concert hall at the height of his international fame to concentrate on recording. radio and television work, while his later years saw him shying away from direct human contact. communicating with a close-knit network of friends through lengthy nocturnal telephone calls and spending the days holed up in his Toronto apartment. munching his way through packets of much-favoured arrowroot bickies.
No, you wouldn‘t be understating the case to say that pianist Glenn Gould had a few odd ways, but whatever he had to do to get the music out of himself was surely worth it. The huge collection of recordings he left us before his death in 1982 at the age of 50 constitute a miraculous legacy of idiosyncratic but often uniquely insightful readings ofthe great Germanic piano repertoire. Right leg casually draped over left on the same low-slung. creaky, old folding chair with a maple leaf carving on the back, his playing posture was no model of correctness, while his spontaneous ‘singing' along with the score bafﬂed generations of recording engineers and listeners alike. But just how good was he? Let’sjust say that when NASA sent the Voyager l and ll space probes on a mission beyond our solar system, they placed on board Gould's recording of a Bach prelude and fugue. Well. you have to represent the high water—mark of human artistic accomplishment somehow.
Although you probably need to hear him glide with effortless clarity through the complex contrapuntal textures of Bach — you’ll believe a man has three hands - to appreciate Gould‘s uniqueness. even the barest thumbnail sketch gives some idea of what a fascinating ﬁgure he remains for fans and indeed detractors alike. In the fourteen years since his demise, there has been an acclaimed biography by Otto Friedrich and the start of a dedicated reissue programme from Sony Classical making newly available on CD, video and laserdisc just about everything he put before a micrOphone. The latest addition to the Gould industry. however, is a brilliant and illuminating celluloid portrait from Montreal
director Francois Girard. 32 Short Films About Glenn
Gould. It's the kind of iconoclastic yet disarmineg perceptive screen treatment that‘ll surely wow newcomers to Gould‘s particular sound world while
‘ being everything (and more) that even the aﬁcionados could hope for in a project of this kind.
Films. . .
lf Gould was hardly your average pianist, 32
is hardly your average biopic. For a start, you‘ll look in vain here for grainy archive footage preserving Gould in his prime or, indeed, of any sequence in which the actor playing Gould — stage specialist Colm Feore (no lookalike, but he gets the
; vocal mannerisms and the cerebral hauteurjust right) — so much as touching a piano. Girard. coming from
‘I think of the film like 32 dots on paper that the audience gradually joins up. The substance of Glenn Gould, of that
enigma, is in the line the viewer traces
between those points.’
: a background in left ﬁeld video work, is refreshingly E practical about such an approach, having spent a
couple of years trawling through the substantial
’ Gould archive in Toronto. he realised there had come ‘a moment where you have to get your actor to give a
great performance and play like Glenn Gould at the same time. Have you seen those old TV pictures? He‘s so intense. You try to reproduce that. you're dead?
The ﬁlm‘s form is partly a homage to the 32 sections of Bach‘s Goldberg Variations — a work Gould twice recorded (1955. I981) — and partly a radical approach to screen biography. lt manages to
32 Short Films About Glenn Gould: ‘brilliant and illuminating’
tell the life story and survey the artist's musical preferences from Beethoven outwards. all the while maintaining an extraordinary degree of anticipation as to just what the next section ofthe piece will bring. Norman McLaren animation? A visual dissection of his favourite piano. Steinway Cl) 318‘? A truck-stop eulogy to Petula Clark‘.’ Gould practising in his head. without so much as touching the keyboard? The reverie of a recording studio playback? Rarely has the act of artistic creation been presented on screen with such creativity.
. ‘I think ofthe ﬁlm like 32 dots on paper that the
. audience gradually joins up,’ explains Girard. who's
just ﬁnished shooting a concert ﬁlm with Peter Gabriel and Canadian theatre guru Robert chage. ‘The substance ofGlenn Gould, ofthat enigma, is in the line the viewer traces between those points. He‘s in the few seconds of black leader between each section of the ﬁnished article. The ﬁlms are 32 positions, 32 ideas. What we're representing is not a continuum or a continuity. it'sjust marking out the limits ofthe territory ofGlenn Gould.‘
‘The cinema for me is what happens between the screen and the audience.‘ he reﬂects. and clearly
something is happening when Gould‘s own father.
now 94, could come to the ﬁlm‘s premiere and judge
‘you‘ve captured the soul of my son'. ‘That.’
i enthuses the director. ‘was our ultimate vindication.
l That’s what you aim for. You're not thinking about
commercial prospects. you‘re not thinking about
distribution in ﬁfteen countries when you're doing
something like this. You‘re just trying to be true to
that one extraordinary individual.‘
32 Short Films About Glenn Gould opens at the
l Glasgow Film Theatre on Friday I 9 August and at
i the Cameo. Edinburgh. on Friday 2 September.
sponsored by BACARDI. BLACK
The List 19—25 August l994 79