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Music Man

Glenn Gould gets a film portrait to match his genius

In a posh hotel room in Hamburg, dashing classical pianist Glenn Gould (Colm Feore), with rumpled clothes and abstracted gait, is feeling too ill to perform. Feverish, he phones in a telegram canceling upcoming concerts; meanwhile, a maid cleans up around him. When she's ready to leave, Gould motions her to sit. Uncomfortably, she defers. A knock on the door brings an expected package. Gould unwraps a record and sets it spinning on a phonograph. Soon, the maid and the pianist are both flushed. Nodding to a chord, luxuriating in a flourish, they silently share the sublimity of Gould's latest recording. Then the record stops, she says danke schsn -- and means it -- and the brief intimacy is over.

That's just one of the canny moments in Thirty-two Short Films About Glenn Gould, a cinematic portrait of the late artist as a captivating eccentric. Gould was truly one of a kind, a virtuoso who shocked the musical world by abandoning public performances when he was 32. A man who had obsessive penchants for arrowroot cookies, the telephone, Petula Clark and tranquilizers, Gould set a new standard for odd. But his talent at the keyboard couldn't be denied, and Thirty-two Short Films shows the connection between the creative genius and the curiosity. In some ways a nod to Bach's Goldberg Variations -- different takes on a single musical theme, and Gould's recording debut -- the film plays variations on the theme of Glenn Gould.

Ignoring the constraints of narrative or chronology might seem bold, but here it appears the perfect way -- maybe the only way -- to illuminate such a complicated individual. Director Francois Girard's brainstorm was to realize that conventional film biography wouldn't do to document a person whose very core was a beguiling state of mind. Another stroke of inspiration was his casting of Colm Feore as Gould. The actor embodies the essence of the pianist, using a lilting voice and graceful gestures to radiate Gould's paradoxical mixture of passion and etherealness.

Most of the film's vignettes are exquisitely realized. Representative of how Gould's musical brilliance is conveyed is "Passion According to Gould." In a recording studio control room, engineers talk about the relative worth of drinking coffee; they're paying only marginal attention to an engrossed Gould on the other side of the soundproof glass. He casually takes his blood pressure and then, while listening to a playback of his performance of a Bach piece, becomes entranced, swaying and swooping and flowing with the music, his untucked shirt undulating in otherworldly slow-motion. In "Truck Stop," Gould eavesdrops on various conversations in a diner, seeming to orchestrate them; that's followed immediately by "The Idea of North," an excerpt from a radio documentary of overlapping conversations that Gould produced.

Throughout the film, facts are revealed effortlessly, as in "L.A. Concert." Backstage, Gould soaks his arms in a sink lined with pill bottles. When called to the stage, he appears dapper and serene, talking with detachment to an aide. Just before he goes on, a stagehand asks him for an autograph. Gould chats with him pleasantly, then takes the stage. It's only then that the stagehand, glancing at the signed program, sees that Gould has written that this will be his last public performance -- something heretofore unannounced. The remarkable "Diary of One Day" creates a collage of heartbeats, medical and musical formulae and x-rays of someone playing the piano in a paean to how Gould gave his heart and soul to his craft.

Though the film skimps on Gould's childhood, it covers a great deal of ground, creating an idiosyncratic sensibility that matches Gould's. One of the final images is particularly fluid and lyrical: a Voyager satellite blasts off into space, carrying evidence of intelligent life on earth, including Gould's rendition of Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier." As the satellite flies into the heavens, the music soars, an appropriate coda to a film that transports us into the alien territory of individual genius.

Thirty-two Short Films About Glenn Gould.
Directed by Francois Girard. Starring Colm Feore.
Not rated.
94 minutes.

 
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