Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould
1993 Directed by Francois Girard. Starring Colm Feore.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 10, 1994
Structured by Bach's Goldberg Variations, this film biography offers 32 brief glimpses of the short life of the ever-eccentric Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. Each section begins a separate musical “Variation” and ends when the piece of music ends. Moreover, the glimpses offered are hardly the stuff of standard biography, an approach that both becomes the movie's strength and weakness. For prior admirers of Gould as a technician and a popular personality, the approach will capture his essence and gestalt. For a viewer uninitiated in Gould's career, personal eccentricities, and overall cultural importance, 32 Short Films will explain very little about why Gould is such a monumental figure. Yes, these latter viewers will see Gould's recording of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier packed into the Voyager satellite as it departs on its mission to seek out other solar systems. The recording is meant to be a sign of the existence of intelligent life forms on earth. But nowhere does the movie explain the attributes of his Bach interpretations that make them such pinnacles of achievement. Still, through a variety of artistically adventuresome techniques, the movie does penetrate some of the convoluted Gould mystique. Colm Feore acts the part of Gould in the vignettes which, rather than performances, are comprised of the stuff that happens in Gould's daily life. Also included are interviews with people who knew Gould, as well as X-ray photography, animation by Norman McLaren, and extremely lyrical camera movements. At its best, 32 Short Films manages to convey something of Gould's state of mind, often using the musician's own words. Such stand-out sequences are frequently the longer ones; i.e., the backstage prelude to his decision to quit public performances, his truckstop luncheon during which he mentally conducts the aural sounds of the various conversations swirling around him, his coy exchanges with the press during interviews. Eccentricities like his galloping hypochondria, his taste for ketchup, his premonition of his death at the age of 50, and his love for the music of Petula Clark are well-integrated. None of this will come as any surprise to the established fans, for the newcomers; it will help solidify the cult of personality that has always surrounded Gould. And I'm afraid that 32 Short Films privileges the cult over the music.