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Gouldberg Variations

Thirty-two Short Films About directed by Francois Girard November 18-19 at the Brattle Theatre

By Tristan Walliser

Glenn Gould was at once a passionate musical genius and a neurotic compulsive freak. As quickly as he polished off a Bach variation, he would also consume arrowroot cookies with ketchup, voraciously take tranquilizers by the dozen and spend hours on the telephone calling anyone at anytime just to talk. In his elliptically eccentric little film, director Francois Girard composes a series of thirty-two short compositions that capture the intense peculiarities of the pianist's insanely tortured and brilliant life. The director's minimalist documentary style, while ostensibly unassuming, is as intense as the Gouldian world it unfolds for us on the screen. The film's fragments wrap us up and then just as quickly unwind--the detached psychological probing is as disorienting as it is seductive. Pain, passion and the just plain weird are glimpsed and strangely haunt the blurry liminal spaces between art and life.

The offbeat style of the film neatly mirrors the inner turmoils and ecstasies of Gould's life. Gould's career took off in the 1950s, and the camera captures the mad rise of his passionate affair with the piano. In an unearthly scene, Gould is pictured flowing through the music studio room, listening to his own recording and enraptured in his act of creation. He is in his own transcendent world. In all its obsessiveness, this charged erotic encounter vies with Hollywood's best.

With the same close acuity for both detail and the grand sweep of the virtuoso, the film quietly captures these escapist tendencies of Gould, whether in his music or in the private spaces of his life. In one stunningly bizarre scene we see Gould approaching us across the snow-clad tundra. The distance and the alienation of his character from us the audience--humanity--is painful, almost violent. The ice and loneliness of the geography are a fitting metaphor for Gould's life as an artist and as a man.

His inability to accomodate and assimilate into the musical world as just another fabulous virtuoso underscores the torture of his life. Paradoxically enough, we see him craving the comforts of friendship and stability just as fiercely as he seeks solitude.

His frustration becomes frozen on the screen. We see him pull his car over in the pouring rain, desperately needing to share a moment with a friend on the phone.

Gould's overwhelming need to flee from the world reached a climax when he decided not to perform live. His obsessive-compulsive nature overcame him, and he descended into the private world of the studio. It is this decision that created Gould's legendary persons--as he became even more remote, the myths of his life increased. At the same time, it suggests the hermetic and elite manner in which Gould lived his life. The brutal facts of Gould's life serve to emphasize the destructive aspects of his genius. He turned obsessively in on himself, and this voracious introspection proved to be his downfall. His soul-searching ultimately became unanswerable.

As for technique, the scope of the film is compelling. The director inserts a series of montage images. X-rays dancing on the screen are woven amidst shots of the crazed. Gould writing in his diary the cold statistics of his medical health. Shots of a NASA flights are mixed with various interviews with people who knew Gould's peculiar persona. Not only are these effective diversions a way of introducing the musical variation of the film itself, but also they serve to highlight the odds and ends of the pianist's existence. The facts are here, but they are woven within a whirl of visual images and musical fleetings.

Colm Feore gives a remarkable performance as Gould. With every move, he suggests Gould's restless quirks and passions. He is both detached and present, tender with a sheet of music, harsh in his judgments and the pain he inflicts on his body. The score of the film is--unsurprisingly--superb, with Gould's actual recordings providing the framework. Life and the artist are given to us but with this successful minimalist style, leave us enough room to ponder the madness and strange sensibility of Glenn Gould.

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