Monday, December 6, 2021



Director: Francois Girard
Screenplay: Francois Girard and Don McKellar with additional material by Glenn Gould


The Goldberg Variations are thirty two musical pieces by Johann Sebastien Bach, which begins and ends with two arias and then has thirty variations on the same musical piece. Curious for a composer of that time, they were release publicly during his lifetime, probably through the pieces namesake, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg who is noted as being probably, the first person to have performed them publicly. 

I myself, am not a classical music aficionado so, that reference the first time I saw "Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould" flew right over me. I personally just thought that the idea of telling a biopic about a person's life, not through the traditional, cliche biopic narratives, much less, the music biopic narratives, was just a brilliant idea, especially for somebody so enigmatic as Glenn Gould (Colm Feore) the child prodigy classical pianist and composer. who famously quit performing at age 31, during the peak of his career to devote himself to recording performances only. His version of The Goldberg Variations is still often considered the best, and he's still regarded as one of the great musicians of the twentieth century. 

Everything I have ever read and heard about Gould, show that he was a peculiar person, and seemingly everybody has some varying stories about him. Trying to make sense or create a straight-forward narrative of a person's life is always a tricky and troubling idea for a film, and I imagine taking any sort of attempt at it with Gould would've just been a meandering mess of a cause anyway, so what we do get, are a lot of varying, random stories about him. Some of them we see acted out, sometimes in some incredible filmmaking, like a strange opening shot that seems to show Gould entering through a landscape of sand into screen like we're in "Lawrence of Arabia" or that one planet from "Dune" or something, only it's him coming out of the white snow and icescape of northern Canada. Some scenes that seem like documentary-style talking heads of people Glenn knew, just talking about some of the phone conversation they had with him, or some of the weird things he said or did. Sometimes it's just a playing of his music, or a reading of a letter he wrote. There's even a purely animated sequence by Normal McLaren, the Oscar-winning Short Subject animator. 

In a weird way, this effect of simply collecting rare fragments of a man's life and splicing them together in this mosaic, it gives us a more complete picture of the man himself. I mean, we don't really do that, but it seems more complete for some reason. We do get scenes of Gould performing or recording in the studio, him being interviewed, including one weird one where he seems to be interviewing himself; he was quite an interviewer himself as he posed often in alias writing as a critic, often of himself. He recorded documentaries on the radio as well, about the history of the North. He's even being interviewed by some unseen interviewer on, apparently a glacier, I think. We see a lot of interviewers of him during a segment where he seems to not answer a lot of questions about him, many that the movie itself will not answer. 

My favorite sequence is a strange one, but it always appealed to me. He would rarely eat at home, and often went out to eat. He steps into a diner that he's frequented so often that the waitress knows his usual, and then, he remains quiet, and just intently listens to one conversation going on at another table. And then, another conversation, and both of them bleed into each other and eventually it seems like all the conversations as well as the radio in the diner playing Petula Clark's "Downtown" seems to drown out everything else as his scrambled eggs with lettuce, onions and tomatoes arrive, and he puts on his ketchup. I don't know why this scene works on me so well, I guess it's because I can't think of another scene that perfectly emulates the tone of thoughts you go through while eating alone. 

Much of his existence and work revolve around solitude. Much of his radio documentaries were about it. He never married, his sexuality, isn't discussed much in the film, and he spent most of his life living alone in seclusion, where he ironically themed to thrive. He didn't compose much music himself ironically, but we get to see so much of what he did. Things that are good, things that questionable, things that are quirky or strange. We know he was a hypochondriac and took a lot of pills, even though when he passed at age 50 in 1982, there was actual little noticeable inclination in his autopsy that he suffered through serious ill health, although he did have a spine industry early in life. 

Most of the movie is scored with his music, and yes, his piano is quite hypnotic and invigorating; I get why his collection of Bach's Variation is currently in the National Recording Registry. (Well, his original recording, he recorded them again the year before his passing) As well as, being apart of the recording of the world's music that's on both of the Voyager ships that have gone past our Solar System. He was a superstar concert pianist in his teens, and we do get an early scene of his mother (Marina Anderson) shown teaching him early on, but mostly, I get why we don't see more of that, just his music percolating and perpetuating throughout the film is enough. It basically is his own soundtrack, and that alone is enough to watch the movie, but the style and approach with Gould's music entrances us and create an everchanging mosaic that gives us a rare richer biopic then we would ever normally have. 

Colm Feore's performance is one of the most underrated in film history. In Canada, he's probably regarded as one of their greatest living actors; in America, he's one of those character actors you've seen in what literally seems like everything, but probably don't recognize him most of the time; he was the prosecuting attorney in "Chicago" for instance, but here, he plays a character through several different decades and neuroses and looks. Often he's talking on a phone or to no one in particular, this is partly because Gould did the majority of his interviews on phone or through his recordings at a studio. He's actually rare seen with others around him. Even during one scene where he's listening to his recordings at a studio with his producers in the booth, he's alone and conducting to an orchestra that isn't there while they talk about him. 

The movie was only the second feature film directed by Francois Girard, the greatest Canadian director who you've probably never heard of. He indeed worked in music, mostly classical music, although his first noted directing gig is a Celine Dion music video, one of the early, early ones that was still in French. He's just an enigmatic as Gould sometimes, until recently he rarely worked much, and his first too big features, dealt with classical music, this film, and probably his more famous follow-up feature, "The Red Violin" which follows a violin from it's creation in the 1600s in Italy across three continents and centuries to it's place on an auction block in Montreal where several interesting parties are bidding on it, and are willing to go to extremes in order to get it. That film, is also spellbinding in it's own way and like "Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould" it was co-written by Don McKellar, another Canadian renaissance man, who I know mostly for his acting, especially for his role as an eccentric theater director on the great sitcom "Slings and Arrows", which Feore was also a major guest star on for a season. He was also the pet shop owner in Atom Egoyan's "Exotica", which I've already written on for my Canon. Girard, then took a nearly decade-long hiatus from directing feature films but has been directing pretty regularly ever since with, although mostly into some globe-travelling period pieces like "Silk" only recently returning to his classical music motif with "The Song of Names". 

I can see why he's chosen more historical fiction then the biopic paths in recent years; there's more material, and especially in "The Red Violin" he did seem to enjoy telling stories through eras; it gave that film in particular a more grandiose narrative to grab ahold of. "Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould" remains more obtuse in that regard, I suspect most people might only know of this film, somewhat from that one episode of "The Simpsons" that very loosely tried to parody this film's structure, but it's still just as fascinating. It's a film that decides to document an enigmatic man, not by trying to dissect him, or explain him, or find some deep personal changing point in his narrative that supposedly explains everything, it simply presents him through all these varying visions that people have of him. It presents him, and the art that he created in his lifetime. A vision of him, and the music that surrounds him, although like it's the physical things we leave behind that all our loved ones have to sort through after our passing. What we leave behind, our stories and images from others' perspectives, and all that we created. 

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