With Francois Girard's Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (U), an interpretative artist is treated with the sort of respect more usually given to the creative - more respect even, since composers' lives are routinely ransacked by the cinema for their sources of inspiration. In the first sequence of the film, Gould walks slowly towards us across a frozen beach: it's like an Arctic version of Omar Sharif's famous entrance in Lawrence of Arabia. As he approaches, the Aria that begins and ends the Goldberg Variations gradually becomes audible over the noise of wind. In the film's closing moments, Gould recedes again into cold distance, except that this time the music (the first prelude of The 48) remains as the person who produced it moves deliberately away.
The film that most closely resembles Girard's, in its attempt to approach without false intimacy the mental world of an intensely paradoxical figure, is Derek Jarman's Wittgenstein and there is justice in that. Both Wittgenstein and Gould were obsessives, eccentric introverts who sometimes behaved like exhibitionists, and both seemed unable to leave unasked the basic questions about their disciplines. When Glenn Gould (played in the film by Colm Feore) says in passing, 'I don't like the sound of piano music that much,' it sounds like one of Wittgenstein's drastically liberating aphorisms about philosophy.
Gould championed the playing of Bach on an instrument Bach could not have imagined and saw recording as primary, concert performance as irrelevant and even iniquitous. It was a peculiarity of his temperament that the less direct the medium, the more intensely he communicated - he spoke on the telephone more freely than in person, for instance, and Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould respects this quirk to the point of imitating it, with its obliqueness of structure.
Girard's film, like Jarman's, proceeds chronologically but without a forced unitary narrative, preferring tableaux to fully dramatised scenes. The objective is not to unravel the life and work - certainly not to explain one in terms of the other - but to ravel them more tightly together. Girard doesn't try to compete with Jarman's flamboyant stylisations, but his film is comparably disarming and celebratory.
At first it seems that we are in for a lot of Mastermind zooms - the sort of shot that advances implacably until it's almost burrowing into a face, in this case, a face listening to music and giving nothing much away. But soon Girard shows Gould conducting his own performances as he listens to playback, and the camera begins to dance round him, with an inhibited abandon of its own.
Often a pair of scenes will complement each other. Gould, while on tour in Europe, plays his new recording to a hotel chambermaid. With troubled obedience she sits, and lays down her trug of cloths and cleansers. Her eyes roam round the room and she smiles faintly, but she might only be checking the cornices for cobwebs. Then the music engrosses her. Something similar happens when Gould's engineers play back a take for his benefit. They aren't concentrating particularly, they even indulge in some decorous horse- play, but the music refuses to be background. Even Gould is pleased, saying casually, 'I think there's something in that - let's hear it again.'
Gould's great genius as an interpreter of contrapuntal music, his refusal to relegate any element to the background, seems to have been more an instinct than an aesthetic choice. In two scenes, we are shown Gould treating conversation as a sort of polyphony, once in a truck-stop diner while a radio plays 'Downtown'. (Gould was a sincere if surprising admirer of Petula Clark, just as Wittgenstein had an unlikely passion for the films of Betty Hutton.) Gould seems to experience the conversations he overhears as a sort of fugue. In the next sequence he produces a similar effect - maddeningly to most listeners - by overlapping the voices in his radio documentary on The Idea of North. This must be the defence for the way Girard's film can seem to be using music as background: but there was no such thing, for Gould, as background, so that music would always automatically earn the attention it deserved.
The film visualises music in a number of ways. First we see Gould's playing represented as a pair of throbbing white columns - a primitive piece of audio analysis reminiscent of Fantasia. Then there is a lovely animation done by Norman McLaren in the 1960s, which sees a fugue from The 48 as music literally of the spheres (an effect marred only by the sentimental appearance of a butterfly). An early sequence filmed inside CD318, Gould's favourite Steinway, prepares us for a startling passage filmed as if inside Glenn Gould, with X-rays synchronised to his playing. From this point of view, with the bones articulating purposefully inside the milky outline of flesh, music is always already dance.
Gould's habits of dress were eccentric - he enjoyed the cold, and had an ambition to spend a winter above the Arctic Circle, but wore gloves, hats and scarves in hot weather. The only witness to them in the film, though, a French musician who collaborated with Gould, seems to find such behaviour perfectly sensible. He points to Gould's early death almost as a vindication - see, he was right: he needed to wrap up well.
The dancing spheres of McLaren's animation recur as the fixed disks of Gould's medication, shown in extreme close-up, pills in white, then blue, then yellow, capsules in two tones of green. For Gould, a blood pressure cuff and a medicine chest were as much a part of daily life as a piano. Girard merely lists and describes the drugs without speculating on Gould's motives for taking them, the compulsive self-medication which is unlikely to have extended his life. The only element of moralising seems to be in the choice of dissonant music to accompany these scenes: it seems improbable that the music of Schoenberg and Hindemith represented disorder to Gould, even if it does to Girard.
It would have been easy to make Glenn Gould seem either grotesque or pitiful, and Francois Girard has managed to create a quite opposite impression. When Gould refers in passing to the feelings of loss one experiences only in dreams, it is possible to think that having a richer emotional life asleep than awake is an odd and even a tragic characteristic: but no one who sees Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould is likely to feel that Gould's was an impoverished life.
'Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould' opens today; details below
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