Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould: Capturing Pianist Genius

The Canadian film Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould arrives in L.A. highly acclaimed, after playing the international film festival circuit and winning the 1993 Genie (the Canadian Oscar) Award.

Offering a rather detached, cerebral portrait of the noted piano player, the film shrewdly avoids a chronological approach to the man it celebrates.  Instead, it borrows its structure from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, with each of the movie’s 32 vignettes representing a variation on Gould’s life and times.

Though most of the vignettes are elegantly constructed, some are more illuminating than others of the artistry and personality of the genius pianist who died in l982, at the age of 50.  Writer-director Francois Girard and producer Niv Fichman take tremendous pride not only in Gould’s great music but also in his Canadian descent; there’s a bit of the hero-worship in their film. Their biggest problem, however, was how to distill 120 hours of recorded music down to a film’s average running time.

Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould never pretends to fully embrace or understand the pianist, who comes across as a complex artist totally devoted to his career.  The film’s strategy is to present many diverse fragments, each capturing one or two aspects of Gould, so that the cumulative effect would give a flavor or a glimpse of the man and his times.

We learn that Gould’s mother was his only piano teacher until he was 10, and that at the age of 3 he already possessed exceptional musical gifts, absolute pitch and ability to read notation.  A review after Gould’s first public performance as organist, when he was 13, declared him a genius.  We also get the impression that Gould was an eccentric in every sense of the term.  Always protective of his talent and a bit of an elitist, he often felt uncomfortable playing to the audience.  As Gould grew older, he became a recluse and his behavior more and more idiosyncratic.

The talented Canadian actor Colm Feore, who bears physical resemblance to the piano player, reads from Gould’s writings, takes walks in the bleak landscapes of Northern Canada, which apparently were frequented by Gould in his quest for solitude.  Making the movie was a bit like resolving a mystery: the filmmakers claim they were able to locate the piano Gould used as a child, a baby grand Chickering.

At times, the structure of Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould appears to be just a gimmick as there’s no link among the disparate episodes.  But the soundtrack is glorious–a good reminder of the wonderful musical heritage that Gould had left to the entire world.