Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993) – “Infinity and Eternity seem to take a liking to the likes of me…”


We open with a long shot of a frozen wilderness.  A man is walking towards us, in a daringly long take that recalls Omar Sharif’s famous entrance in Lawrence of Arabia.  The man is Glenn Gould (Colm Feore), legendary concert pianist.  Thirty two short films later, the man walks away again across the snowy wastes.  By this time, we have learnt that his music has now traveled beyond the edge of our Solar System, as part of mankind’s Desert Island Discs on the Voyager probe, and we are left with a sense of wonder at the boundless universe beyond, and the boundless universe that exists inside every one of us.

The Lawrence of Arabia comparison is important, because in the biopic, the most staid and conservative of all movie genres, film makers are usually restricted by the medium itself.  By its very nature, the biopic tends to be about great and complex human beings, and the makers are presented with the challenge of how to cram a whole life into one single film.  Even Lawrence of Arabia, clocking in at around four hours, barely scratches at the surface of T.E Lawrence.

Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould avoids that problem by barely telling you anything about Gould’s life.  It follows a vaguely chronological sequence, starting with his childhood – “By the age of ten I had the first book of well-tempered klavier pretty much under my belt” – and ending with Gould’s daunting realisation that fate is nipping at his heels.  Other than that, the thirty-two short films barely attempt to acknowledge any relation actual events, instead chosing to reflect on elements of Gould’s character, or meditations on music itself.

The film – or films – takes its structure from Gould’s masterpiece, his recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  The cumulative effect is a rich tapestry of perfectly orchestrated vignettes which, as a whole, creates a sense of a fully rounded human being.  It is intellectually stimulating, psychologically rewarding and emotionally resonant – not bad for a film about an effusive windbag forever captivated by his own amazingness.

If this all sounds a bit arty, or pretensious, or highfalutin, don’t worry.  It is easily one of the most enjoyable and watchable biopics ever made.  The mesmerising combination of François Girard feather-light direction and Feore’s magnetic performance as Gould makes this a sublime watch.  Feore plays Gould with a boundless generosity of spirit.

One film is a short clip of a real life friend of Gould’s, who amusingly tells of a phone conversation with the pianist.  The friend fell asleep, and woke hours later to find Gould still rattling on at the other end of the line, unaware that his listener had nodded off.  We get the sense of a man completely self-absorbed and lost in his rich inner world, but the way Feore plays it, we are quite happy to join Gould in his grandiose impression of himself.

Standout sequences include Gould sitting in a truck stop, conducting a symphony in his head from the overheard conversations around him; Gould trapping a German housemaid in a hotel room and making her listen to a recording of himself to see her reaction; Gould’s unannounced final concert performance at the age of thirty-two shown from inside his piano.

Gould is never shown actually playing the piano, although his music is ever present on the soundtrack.  The ploy forces the viewer to make a mental connection between the man we see and the sounds we hear – the closest we get to seeing Gould play is a bizarre, virtuoso moment of Gould playing in X-Ray.  These forced internal points of view – inside the piano, inside Gould’s very being – help reinforce the idea that music is something that courses through his veins.

Girard isn’t really interested in poking around in Gould’s private life, casting aspersions about his sexuality, commenting on his drug use, or making assumptions about his motivation.  Gould here is a warm, eccentric presence.  One short film has him putting together a lonely hearts ad in the most ridiculously pretensious language imaginable.

For one second, we believe he’s actually going to get it posted – then he hangs up the phone and laughs to himself.  It was just a silly joke.  He’s a man at once fascinated by the rhythms of normal human life, but also incredibly detached from it.  In that instant, I was reminded of one of my favourite passages from one of my favourite books, Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud A Solitude:

“I can be by myself because I’m never lonely, I’m simply alone, living in my heavily populated solitude, a harum-scarum of infinity and eternity, and Infinity and Eternity seem to take a liking to the likes of me.”


About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and baby daughter.

Posted on 13/12/2013, in 0-9, Drama, Film, Movies, Psychological, Reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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