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Pianist Glenn Gould's Life Comes to the Big Screen

The musician's career and personality are probed through an engrossing part-documentary, part-fictional account

By David SterrittStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 14, 1994



NEW YORK

THE title of ``Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould'' is a little misleading since this is actually a single movie divided into 32 parts.

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It's an uneven picture, and at times an eccentric one. But these qualities are fully in keeping with Gould himself, whose life and work oscillated between the brilliant and the ornery, often combining the two in ways that puzzled even his most steadfast admirers.

Not quite fiction and not quite documentary, the movie is as unpredictable as its subject: the most fascinating pianist - and perhaps the most fascinating musician of any kind - to achieve prominence during the past several decades. In all, it's the most engrossing arts-related film in a very long time.

``Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould'' was directed by Canadian filmmaker Francois Girard, and stars actor Colm Feore as the great pianist. The movie's design is borrowed from J.S. Bach's magnificent Goldberg Variations, in which 30 interrelated episodes are juxtaposed with an aria that introduces and concludes the work.

This aria is echoed in the movie by two leisurely scenes of Gould visiting the snow-covered reaches of the Canadian Arctic, which exercised a strong hold on his imagination.

Between these vignettes are 30 separate scenes covering many key issues in Gould's career, from his unconventional living habits to his still-debated decision to leave the concert stage at the peak of his career.

While many of the episodes are engaging and even amusing, others touch on the pianist's dark side, including the overuse of prescription drugs that may have contributed to his untimely death in 1982.

One section of the movie is labeled ``Questions With No Answers,'' raising such unresolved matters as Gould's failure to write much music of his own, despite his stated wish to become an active composer, and his seemingly inconsistent views on technical perfection in the recording studio - where he labored to create ideal performances through editing techniques, yet put up with imperfect pianos and his own irksome tendency to hum along as he played.

An additional ``question with no answer'' that occurs to me is whether Gould would have liked this movie. I suspect the answer is both yes and no.

On the positive side, Gould would surely have applauded the film's multifaceted structure, which resembles the segmentation of a musical suite (a form he greatly loved) rather than the welded-together unity of a sonata movement. He would also have liked the movie's way of combining words, images, and music, weaving them together while allowing each a full measure of individual dignity and importance.

What might have bothered Gould about the movie is its continual focus on him as a musical superstar. One of his chief reasons for abandoning the recital stage was a conviction that artists can labor more effectively in private, away from a public that often cares less about musical exaltation than about spotting flaws in performances.

On the other hand, Gould wasn't exactly camera shy, and he participated in many public activities - including a long list of recording sessions - while continuing to make his voice heard through writing and radio broadcasting. While he might have found this film too revealing for comfort, it's possible that he would have secretly enjoyed all the attention.

Written by director Girard and Don McKellar, the movie takes many of its verbal ingredients from Gould's own articles and statements. Also included are spontaneous interviews with people who knew the pianist as well as staged ``interviews'' with Gould associates played by actors. A good deal of Gould's recorded music graces the soundtrack, and one of his spoken-word recordings (a portion of ``The Idea of North,'' made for Canadian radio) superbly illustrates his theories about counterpoint and the speaking voice.

``Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould'' has some serious shortcomings. For one thing, it's often hard to distinguish the performances by actors and actresses from appearances by ``real people'' sharing first-hard experiences about the pianist's life.

It's also unfortunate that the real Gould makes no appearance beyond a still photo at the very end - although this is an understandable decision, since such an appearance might have interfered with the credibility of Feore's acting in the title role.

These problems aside, ``Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould'' is a treat for music-lovers and a wonderful introduction to Gould for those who haven't yet encountered his remarkable career.

* ``Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould'' is unrated.