Editor’s Note: Please forgive me if this article seems somewhat incoherent. It was written while under the influence of the flu and copious amounts of cold medicine.
Glenn Gould: My mother tells me that by five years old l had decided definitively to become a concert pianist. l think she had decided sometime earlier.
As of the time of writing this article, the average human life expectancy is 67 years. To put that into perspective, that equals 586,920 hours of life. As humans, we are unable to comprehend that amount of time until we have actually achieved it. So for many, 586,920 is simply a number. But for filmmakers, 586,920 can be one of the scariest figures imaginable. For in movies that depict the course of an individual’s lifetime, known as the “biopic,” the filmmaker must examine all 586,920 hours of living and select only two hours worth of material to show. How is that possible? Two hours is only 1/12 of a single day! How is any director supposed to properly depict a life in such a small amount of time?
Filmmakers have struggled with this challenge since the heyday of the cinema. The vast majority practice the technique of picking out and portraying what history has declared to be the most important parts of their lives. But do those particular moments truly define a man or a woman? Is a human merely the sum of their greatest accomplishments, or something more?
And then there is the challenge of perspective. The vast majority of biopics are fairly linear in approach. There may be the occasional flashback or flash-forward, but for the most part we start at the beginning and end at the end. This technique sounds like common sense, doesn’t it? But, consider this: who truly views their life in such a way? Few, if any, can definitively say that they remember the moment that they first came into existence. And we will probably never know if we are conscious or coherent when our lives truly end. Our experience as humans, the way that we view and comprehend our lives, is anything but linear. It is the grand total of not just actions, but experiences, feelings, and emotions. So how is a filmmaker supposed to depict this? Is the cinema even capable of approaching any kind of truth about how somebody lived? Is the concept of the biopic meaningless even by its definition?
So imagine the task set before Canadian filmmaker François Girard when he decided to do a biopic on Glenn Gould. Gould, a Toronto-born concert pianist widely accepted as one of the greatest virtuosos that the instrument has ever seen, would prove to be a difficult person to explore within the limits of traditional filmmaking. Able to read music before he could read words, Gould was a child prodigy who quickly became one of the most famous pianists alive. And yet, on April 10, 1964, at the height of his popularity, Gould suddenly announced that he would never perform in public again. He would go on to devote his life to doing recordings, nearly living in studios, and only maintaining contact with friends and relatives via telephone. In a sense, Gould was the Howard Hughes of the music world: endlessly brilliant, yet subjected to a self-imposed isolation from the world.
How can so strange a life be properly committed to film? Girard realized that it couldn’t be, at least in a traditional sense. So he constructed one of the most unique and penetrating character studies to ever grace the cinema: Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould.
As the title suggests, the film is literally made up of thirty-two short films, ranging from a few seconds to six minutes. They consist of interviews with people that Gould knew in real life (such as concert violinist Yehudi Menuhin) and reconstructions of various scenes from Gould’s life (starring the pitch-perfect performance of Colm Feore as Gould). Some are fairly straightforward: in one of the first short films we explore Gould’s childhood. In this segment, Gould narrates how music was an intrinsic part of his youth. Indeed, we watch as his mother played him classical music as he was still growing in her womb. Another segment shows him signing an autograph backstage of his last public concert. He coyly tells the man that he is lucky, adding, “I'm never going to sign one of these again.”
But the real magic of the film lie in the more unique and abstract segments. In one, he turns on a series of radios in his studio and seems to conduct the noise, as if hearing some inexplicable music that nobody else could. In “Gould Meets Gould” he literally argues with himself over the roles of the artist and their audiences. “Pills” shows all of the medications that Gould would consume late in his life, with him monotonously reciting a laundry list of side effects for each one. “Diary of One Day” confronts the audience with living x-rays of Gould’s hands, skull, and chest, as if proving that he has nothing to hide. And then, in “Gould Meets McLaren” we are treated to an animation of floating orbs pulsating to Gould’s music.
All thirty two segments serve to do more than give us a glimpse or summary Gould’s life. Instead, they serve to give the audience a snapshot of something much more illuminating and intimate: a chance to experience how Gould encountered and interacted with the world. It is impossible to truly know what Gould felt when he saw something or heard a piece of music. But Girard does his utmost to prove that it was wholly unique. Just as how the same piece of music can never be performed the same way twice, no human can ever live the same way, experience the same things, or feel the same feelings as anybody else. In Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, Girard has created more than a biopic: he reconstructed a life itself.
Editor's Note: I just realized that this is the first Canadian film to be featured on my website. Exciting, eh?