Original release: November 26th, 1993
Running time: 98 minutes
Director: François Girard
Writers: François Girard, Don McKellar
Cast: Colm Feore, Derek Keurvorst, Katya Ladan
Biopic’s are more often than not hindered by the linear nature in which we perceive time as it passes us by. We’re born, we grow, we learn, we overcome obstacles, we fall in love, we raise a family, we suffer tragedy, we receive redemption, we grow old, and we die.
The majority of award magnet biopics follow this tried and tested format (the underwhelming Ray or Walk The Line for example). Some are more particular and focus on a short but important moments in the subject’s life (Invictus) but still begin at the beginning and end at the end. This formula though cannot cope with the decidedly non-linear way in which we recall the memories of our life.
When biopics are made or autobiographies written we seem, by the very way we strive against chaos, to force order upon our memories, therefore making them unnatural. Which leaves us in a paradoxical situation; if nature is order then to make something unnatural (such as making a biopic linear) we’re surely inviting chaos, the force we were so sure we were fighting against in our drive to subject order.
32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, a film which does exactly as it title suggests, is a brave and altogether successful attempt to portray a life in a way that stays true to our memory’s interpretation of time. Its collected pieces have no regard for order or narrative; they represent and allow us to contemplate the man they represent.
Its structure is a perfect symbol for Gould the man; Gould the pianist, the recording artist, the composer, the innovative producer, the radio artist, the impressionist, the hypochondriac. So it makes sense a man of such multiple personas is represented through a biopic of multiple vignettes such as interviews, fictional representations, monologues, animation and musical performance.
It may be quite obvious to even a part-time film viewer, that the majority of biopics concern themselves with characters that could be said to possess ‘multiple personas’ it’s after all what makes them attractive to being the subject of a film, so why you may ask yourself has this approach never been taken before?
32 Short Films’s economy is exact, its pace and editing perfectly in tune with its structure and the depiction of its subject by these means, but most importantly it allows the details to lead the portrayal. Within a 5 minute sequence we see Gould (played with great subtlety and precession by Colm Feore) alone and surrounded by bottles of pills, soak his hands in warm water before a performance; soon after he’s harried by his agent to the stage and there he speaks to a stagehand. He signs a program for him and it’s only after Gould has left do we realise, by what he’s written that this would be his last performance.
Without lengthily exposition we learn so much about Gould, yet we see none of the great symbols that represent his public life, we see no audience or piano, in fact throughout the film we never see him once play. This fact alone, more even than the impressionistic structure, truly highlights the films attempts at depicting Gould in a way that reaches beyond what biopics have tried previously.
In fact it attempts to overcome many of the restrictions film has as a medium. It’s fitting that a film which is driven, even brought into being by music, attempts to overcome the restrictions that are present in film but not in music. Music as Victor Hugo said ‘expresses that which cannot be said’…..a similar thought could be applied to paintings.
Literature has the inner voice from which to call on. Film as a whole is entirely outside the body – an argument could be made by the voice-over, but this often clumsily used tool is usual used as a simple application of style rather than an exploration of psyche in the same way as sophisticated examples of it in literature like Joyce’s Molly Bloom, or William Gass’s Jethro Furber.
32 Short Films About Glenn Gould tries to overcome film’s problems with these processes by the literal application of showing; letting the audience reflect on expression and stillness, and slowly bringing us closer to the character. One scene has Glenn Gould listening to the myriad of conversations in Truck Stop.
We then move closer; Gould asks the maid in his hotel room to listen to a piece of music, we watch his expression as someone watching another’s. And then closer, we watch Gould listen back to one of his recordings in the studio. And then so close that the director trusts the audience to understand when one vignette entitled 45 Seconds And A Chair simply shows Gould sat crossed leg staring directly at us.
This method is taken to abstract lengths in a scene made up entirely of X-rays. By showing contemplation we the viewers are allowed to contemplate on it. It’s a private experience shared. Just like Gould’s music.
Ben has been in love with cinema from a young age having been introduced to the classic cinema of Capra and Hitchcock by his father and the ‘other’ classic cinema of Carpenter and Cronenberg by Alex Cox late night on Channel 4.
In 2009 with formal training that equated to watching Mean Streets a lot, he co-founded Anti/Type Films. Since then he has written, produced and directed more than a dozen short films and documentaries, as well as writing and performing several scores. It means he gets to travel, which he likes.