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Glenn Gould's Infinite Variety


By Susan S. Lee

Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould

directed by Francois Girard

At first, the faint buzzing blends in with the crisp notes and trills of Glenn Gould's recording of Bach's "Prelude in C Minor." Perhaps the tape is a bad copy, or the stereo is acting up again. Then the distracting noise grows louder, more insistent, until it can no longer be dismissed as a mechanical error. In fact, it is Gould singing along with his own performance as he always did on the stage and in the recording studio. Throughout his search for technical perfection, he hummed along audibly and slightly off-key. In many ways the odd combination of musical precision with his discordant vocal impromptus characterized much of Gould's personality: his music reflected a purist's sensitivity to rhythm, tone and order, while his words and actions remained erratic and undecipherable. A recluse who eventually gave up live performances, he soon found other means of communication through his writing, recordings, and radio shows. Director Francois Girard transposes Gould's contradictions into another medium in his film, "Thirty Two short Films About Glenn Gould."

Divided into 32 vignettes, the film borrows its structure from Gould's first and most famous recording of Bach's "Goldberg Variations." Through a series of interviews, animated clips, and dramatized scenes from Gould's life, the film attempts to present a multi-faceted portrait of the pianist, but with mixed success. A common theme links the "Goldberg Variations" together, each revealing a new subtlety in the melody or voice in the harmony; in the film Gould is the main theme, but not every vignette contributes to the depiction of Gould's life or character. As a result of this dead weight, "Thirty Two Short Films" falls somewhat short in overall cohesiveness.

The sympathetic interviews with colleagues, friends, and family give the film a quasi-documentary touch. The conversations soon reveal that even the people closest to Gould could not explain his numerous eccentricities, a fact that leaves many questions unanswered yet seems appropriate at the same time. Rather than trying to psychoanalyze the pianist, the film seems content to keep the theme of Gould open to interpretation. The film derives much of its humor from the ongoing bewilderment and second-guessing of his friends. Why did Gould insist upon wearing a scarf, hat, and gloves throughout the summer? Why did he set the piano bench so low that he played the keyboard at eye level? Why did he keep 42 botles of ketchup in his hotel room? One hotel chambermaid earnestly explains how all the other maids refused to work for him, because they thought he was a sexual deviant. These firsthand stories slyly poke fun at the many critics and commentators who have attempted to offer the authoritative word on Gould.

Colm Feore, in the role of Gould, plays the pianist with a believable mixture of neuroticism, genius, and vulnerability. Especially noteworthy, the vignette "Gould on Gould" shows Gould interviewing himself. The quick-fire repartee and witticisms show the sharp, self-deprecating humor and intelligence that were his trademark. In other scenes Feore expresses the loneliness of a man who would drive alone at night, calling up friends from telephone booths to talk about death and regret.

These strong scenes, however, are disrupted by the occassional vignette that does not fit in with the rest. For example, a few of the lengthy computer animations and camera pans of inanimate objects bear a strong resemblance to Sesame Street scenes. Accompanied by a fugue or well-chosen cantata, these vignettes aim at artistry, but instead seem to be trying too hard. The visual images are not arresting enough to match the cerebral music that Gould worked so hard to create.

Yet despite these small disappointments, "Thirty Two Short Films" presents an entertaining and thought-provoking perspective on Gould--not an easy task, considering the complexity and inconsistency of his character. The film does not focus solely on his work or his eccentricities, but instead balances the two in order to better examine their effect upon each other; the prelude and the humming come together in a new variation on Gould.

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