Most of the 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould work, and live up to the central idea: to portray the great Canadian pianist, composer, radio documentarian, hermit, and general strange-o (1932-1982) not in the conventional manner of a biopic or documentary, but to create a disparate set of individual works, some directly from his life, some fictional, some only tangentially related to Gould, to create a work with a musical kind of joy, recognizing that music goes past documentary or even fictional truth. (It’s impossible not to see this as a kind of predecessor to Todd Haynes’ Dylanpic, I’m Not There.) Even the “32” has musical rather than cinematic significance and gives the film its overall architecture: director François Girard took it from JS Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, starting with an opening aria, thirty variations on the bassline, and a repeat of the aria to finish. (Gould recorded the Variations at the age of 23 for his debut recording with Columbia and it became a full-on hit.)
The title 32 Short Films matters; this isn’t 32 Scenes About. . . or Paul Schrader’s Mishima: a Life in Four Chapters. Girard allows himself the freedom of different styles and approaches, and almost all of them land to varying degrees. The opening and closing “Aria”s simply have Gould (Colm Feore) walking first towards and away from the camera in an Arctic landscape while the Goldberg Aria plays; “Gould Meets McLaren” shows animation from Norman MacLaren with music from Bach’s Art of the Fugue played by Gould; “Motel Wawa” has Gould talking on the telephone (his favorite way of dealing with people) while the camera wanders around a room, only occasionally watching him; “Diary of One Day” flashes excerpts of his drug intake and blood pressure readings to the tune of Paul Hindemith; and “Questions with No Answers” presents a series of interviewers, colleagues, executives, and friends asking just those to the camera (Gould never appears here), in a montage that’s by turns comic, revealing, mundane, and in the last question, devastating.
Overall, I give this a 96.875% certified fresh rating, since Girard glitches badly in the twelfth film, “Passion According to Gould.” It’s the kind of mistake that hurts, especially in something like this, where there’s so much inventiveness and insight on display. We all know that the most angering things in art aren’t the worst failures, they’re the most disappointing failures, especially if they’re personal. Gould has long been a hero of mine, someone who in Nietzsche’s terms became what he was, reconciled himself to himself and lived the life he was meant to live. (OK, maybe he shouldn’t have had scrambled eggs every day for breakfast, with undoubtedly led to him dying of a stroke just past his 50th birthday.) His recordings of Bach, Hindemith, Schönberg, and especially Beethoven are particular and unforgettable, and his “Solitude Trilogy” of radio documentaries is one of the masterpieces of an underheard medium. If you know Gould’s life and work, what stings is not simply that this particular short film is bad, it’s that the good version of it would have been so easy to do.
Like so many good short films, this is a simple idea, simply executed: Gould at a recording studio, listening to the playback of one of his pieces (a Bach English Suites). He dances, waves his arms, all with slow motion and a circling camera while the engineers talk about coffee and one of them says, at the end, “guys, I think we have something really good here.” The camerawork is elegant, the studio nicely and believably cluttered, and it’s a good touch to open on Gould testing his blood pressure, both a correct biographical detail and something that comes back in “Diary of One Day.”
The dancing has a biographical grounding, sort of. Gould would often conduct from the piano if he had a free hand–he had a rule for any piece of piano music written before 1900: “if you can’t conduct it, it’s wrong.” The slow motion, though, means that his gestures have no connection to the music–the first missed opportunity here. Waving around with disheveled hair and loose white shirt, he winds up looking like no one so much as The Boondock Saints’ Willem Dafoe in the THERE WAS A FIREFIIIIIIIGHT sequence, which is not a comparison you ever want to be a part of. Overall, what this film gives us, from the title onward, is a subtler and therefore more insidious version of the musical biopic cliché (so effectively parodied, as they all were, in Walk Hard): the artist in his own ecstatic world of art, and the mundane listeners who at first don’t get it and then do. When so many of the 32 Short Films avoid that, the failure of this one becomes much more stark.
The problem here, though, isn’t merely that we’ve seen this before, but that it gets some essential elements of Gould wrong, even backward. He worked closely with his producers and engineers on his recordings and his radio documentaries; he regarded playback and editing as a necessary element of his music, which led to one of the most famous aspects of his creative life: his retirement from public performance at the age of 32 (hey!) He was always emphatic about the role of technology and recording, beginning with a radio broadcast in his teenage years:
. . .later the same day I was presented with a soft-cut “acetate,” a disc which dimly reproduced the felicities of the broadcast in question. . . .rehearing the acetate for the third or fourth time, I discovered that if I gave it a bass cut at a hundred cycles or thereabouts and a treble boost at approximately five thousand, the murky, unwieldy, bass-oriented studio piano with which I had to deal with earlier in the day could be magically transformed. . . .“Remarkable clarity–must have been an incredible piano,” friends would say. “Believe me, you simply can’t imagine,” I would respond. I had learned the first lesson of technology; I had learned to be creatively dishonest.
At a time when classical music was still thought of in terms of concerts, Gould proclaimed studio recordings as the future. In particular, he praised that creative dishonesty of recording, the chance not just to correct mistakes but to arrive at new interpretations of old works:
A year or so ago, while recording the concluding fugues from volume 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier, I arrived at one of Bach’s celebrated contrapuntal obstacle courses, the fugue in A minor. . . .Some weeks later, however, when the results of this session were surveyed in an editing cubicle and when takes 6 and 8 were played several times in rapid alternation, it became apparent that both had a defect of which we had been quite unaware of in the studio: both were monotonous.
Each take had used a different style of phrase delineation in dealing with the thirty-one note subject of the fugue–a license entirely consistent with the improvisatory liberties of baroque style. Take 6 had treated it in a solemn, legato, rather pompous fashion, while in take 8 the fugue subject was shaped in a prevailingly staccato manner which led to a general impression of skittishness. . . .At this point someone noted that, despite the vast differences in character between the two takes, they were performed at an almost identical tempo. . .and it was decided to turn this to advantage by creating one performance to consist alternately of takes 6 and 8.
The could-have-been version of “Passion According to Gould” is clear, and fulfills one of Girard’s rules for 32 Short Films: never show Gould playing the piano. He could have shown exactly this kind of work in the booth, playing back recordings, comparing them, correcting them (it’s so cinematic: Feore walks offscreen, an engineer calls out “insert three, take one” or some such, we hear a few notes, “thanks Glenn, got it,” Feore comes back), talking about them, creating a performance entirely in the booth. (In this version, you’d never even see a piano, much less a performance.) It would honor Gould’s sense of art-as-craft rather than art-as-divine-inspiration, it would show his eccentric sense of communication with others, and it would get across one of the key aspects of his philosophy of art, the importance of technology.
The uncreative dishonesty and insult of “Passion According to Gould” isn’t only to Gould, it’s to his collaborators, his producers and engineers. To show them separate from Gould, to show them somehow not getting it, erases the real work of creative people (one of his producers, Andrew Kazdin, describes this work in his memoir of his career with Gould) for an image of the artist that Gould himself openly rejected. He wrote about this in a self-interview, part of which shows up here as one of the films. Girard clearly knew Gould’s writings and attitudes, which inform so many of the 32 Short Films, so I remain baffled as to how he missed the mark so badly here. Whaddaya need, a splice chart?