Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (Francois Girard, 1993)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould.

criterion logoFrançois Girard provides in this unconventional bio-pic a compelling and memorable exploration of Canadian musician Glenn Gould, arguably the 20th Century’s greatest classical pianist. Through thirty-two elegantly constructed vignettes mixing drama, documentary, animation, and avant-garde, Girard reveals glimpses of Gould as performer, recording artist, humorist, outdoorsman, speculator, recluse, and iconoclast. Taken together, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould offers a prismatic understanding of Gould’s complex genius and his personal struggles without dispelling the enigmatic power of his legend.

Disc Features:

1. Aria – A black speck on a white expanse approaches, becoming Glenn Gould (Colm Feore). He arrives fully formed from an almost comically Canadian landscape of ice and snow. Dressed in his familiar coat and driver hat, Gould stops before us, surveys the frigid emptiness, and says nothing. He is a myth, a natural force, a divine tramp-king ruling in isolation within a great white north.

2. Lake Simcoe – Gould’s childhood is revealed at the family’s cabin at Lake Simcoe, highlighting his love of music, the radio (crying at a broadcast of Tristan), and his own thoughtful musings. He is a musician upon his birth, his mother having played music for him in utero. Thirty Two Short Films begins telling by its omissions. There is nothing of Gould’s childhood home in the Beaches neighbourhood of Toronto, of his lonely school days, of his studies with Alberto Guerrero at The Royal Conservatory of Music, of his fall from a boat ramp and his consequent back injury, of his early precociousness, or of his rise to celebrity. Save for the suggestion of fortuitous genius and the bio-pic’s typical affinity for small town roots, director François Girard avoids creating any essentializing origin for Gould the man/artist.

forty-five-seconds-and-a-chair3. Forty-Five Seconds and a Chair – The artist presented as a tableau of simple intensity. Bach’s Two-Part Invention in A Minor plays while Gould, seated in an antique chair, stares intently into the approaching camera. The scene recreates the album cover to Glenn Gould Plays Bach – The Six Partitas. With a single cut and intertitle, Gould is transformed from childhood reminiscence to iconic recording artist. A great intellect is suggested but Gould does not yet speak, protecting the aura of his brilliance.

4. Bruno Monsaingeon: musician and collaborator – The expository documentary interjects itself with an amicably bespectacled Frenchman speaking on Gould’s quirkiness and his great capacity for humour. The talking head of filmmaker, violinist, and Gould-collaborator Bruno Monsaingeon declares the generic variety contained within Thirty Two Short Films and counters the constructed images and apocryphal accounts that preceded. The interview evidences the film’s national character by circling it back to Canadian cinema’s documentary foundation, yet also describes Gould’s transnational significance through a foreign testimonial.

5. Gould Meets Gould: text by Glenn Gould – Gould is finally seen speaking for himself, albeit in a performed self-interview derived from Gould’s article, “Glenn Gould Interviews Glenn Gould about Glenn Gould,” published in High Fidelity in 1974. Gould, the seated interviewer, is challenged by Gould, the wandering interviewed, with the idea that greater insight is achieved by having the interviewer’s subject speak outside of their particular field of expertise. They spar over the interviewed Gould’s notion that the artist is ideally situated without connection to his audience, the postmodern joke being obviously apparent as Gould argues the point with no one but himself.

6. Hamburg – The artist/audience disjunction takes further form in a suite at the Vier Jahreszeiten hotel in 1958 where a chambermaid is presented with an unusual and impromptu recital of the Scherzo from Beethoven’s Sonata in E-flat Major, op. 27, no. 1. The piece is played by Gould (sick with bronchitis) not on the piano that dominates the room, but from a just-delivered LP spinning on a record player. The maid listens to the record while the pianist observes the maid, turning performer-spectator roles in on themselves. Gould is already a cultural commodity of global media and he happily observes his own consumption even if the song featured was not recorded by Gould until 1981 and was released posthumously. Is Gould watching us now watch him from some farther, more rarefied perspective beyond our mortal plane?

variation-in-c-minor7. Variation in C Minor – Beethoven’s WoO 80 as optical soundtrack. Sound given shape, divorced from its performance and existing by mechanical reproduction. Gould’s musical ghost in the machine. What artist might he have become in the digital era?

8. Practice – Gould typically studied music by reading it rather than playing it, a technique taught by Alberto Guerrero. In a basement studio, Gould swoons between its blue-grey brick walls and around a piano imagining music he might later play, shutting the instrument’s keyboard when his mental performance is completed. He is swept up in this cerebral concert, being moved as much as moving. The scene recalls André Loiselle’s suggestion that such scenes best display Gould’s often speculated upon sexuality, using the piano as fetish object to demonstrate his emotions and desires.

9. The L.A. Concert – Gould sits at a sink soaking his arms up to his elbows, open pill bottles (appearing frequently in these vignettes) stand on the fixture. It’s a reminder, in the face of the preceding segments, that Gould’s music was the result of great physical effort. These are the moments preceding Gould’s last public performance, occurring on April 10, 1964, at the Wilshire Ebell Theater in LA. The pianist is remarkably placid in his banal exchanges with his manager and attendant. The significance of the event is unknown to its witnesses but for Gould’s signing a stagehand’s program naming it “the final concert.” Girard continues to line fact with fiction, sidestepping the well-documented reality that Gould had made no decision at the time of the concert that it would be his last. Girard is creating his own legends as well.

10. CD318 – Shot from within Gould’s favourite Steinway piano, the instrument’s mechanics play a Bach prelude. Hammers and dampers work the piano’s strings, resonating through the soundboard. The camera surveys the piano’s interior like a landscape, visualizing the music and its creations in yet another way, sensualizing Gould’s most famous musical partner.

11. Yehudi Menuhin: violinist – Documentary once again intervenes with another talking head. This time it is celebrated violinist Yehudi Menuhin. He remarks on Gould’s artistic preference for isolation, his love of nature, and his contrasting affinity for natural people, such as fishermen. Menuhin is a breath of fresh air. Lively and friendly, his appearance breaks the sedate spell cast by Gould in the preceding scenes.

sound-of-genius-poster12. Passion According to Gould – Recalling Gould’s recording sessions at Columbia Records captured by Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor in Glenn Gould: On the Record (1959), Gould is shown listening in studio to playback of his performance while sound engineers debate the quality of coffee. Gould rapturously conducts his way through a broadcast of the Gigue from the English Suite in A Minor (actually recorded in 1971). We have yet to see Feore’s Gould actually tickle any ivories and we never will in Thirty Two Short Films, as Girard takes Gould’s advice on interviewing and avoids the obvious subject. The segment opens with Gould taking his own blood pressure, a momentary hint at Gould the hypochondriac.

13. Opus 1: a composition by Glenn Gould – A circling camera observes a string quartet performing one of Gould’s neo-Romantic compositions, even more strongly nodding at Canada’s documentary legacy and the National Film Board of Canada’s Unit B. The piece resembles a round to my untrained ear, complimenting the quantum view of Gould at work through these 32 short films.

crossed-paths14. Crossed Paths – Girard takes documentary talking heads into Errol Morris territory with a series of interviews of unusual persons recounting Gould’s quirkiness. From Arrowroot cookie stockpiles to animal sanctuaries, from rambling, self-absorbed phone calls to posthumous charitable donations, the banal is presented in full bloom, transitioning the film from Gould the musician to Gould the sound artist/deep thinker/eccentric.

15. Truck Stop – Gould waits for “the usual” in a truck stop diner while hidden beneath his sunglasses and winter wear. He listens to various conversations throughout the restaurant, laying them over top of one another one by one. Here, the musician’s ideas about music and sound take shape in an unexpected place as Gould, fan of the everyman, merges with Gould, the emerging sound artist. The short combines a demonstration of Gould’s unusual behaviour discussed in “Crossed Paths” and anticipates his second career in audio collage portrayed in “The Idea of North.”

the-idea-of-north16. The Idea of North: a radio documentary by Glenn Gould – Starting in 1967, Gould explored “contrapuntal radio” with broadcasts for the CBC featuring various overlapping speakers and ambient sounds, creating various works including his music-concrète Solitude Trilogy – The Idea of North (1967), The Latecomers (1969), and The Quiet in the Land (1977). Piano components are replaced with radio paraphernalia and Gould’s conducting, noted in earlier episodes as innately done whether listening to playback or interviewing people, is again on display. Gould is arguably depicted here at his most creative, fully unburdened from the concert hall and intensely exploring the possibilities of the recording studio. From here on, Gould will remain the free-thinking experimenter, although the film will attend less to his art and more to his celebrity, his isolation, and his awareness of his own mortality.

solitude17. Solitude – Gould is questioned by an unseen interviewer on his interest in the north, in isolation, and in solitude. The scene evokes various record covers using the image of Gould standing within a rural winter. His enthusiastic thoughtfulness fits the creative solitude desired in the northerly space that surrounds him, although it an unusual location for an interview. The scene’s connection to “Aria” suggests that Gould occupies here a sympathetic thought-space rather than a literal location.

18. Questions with No Answers – A montage of interviews over the phone and in person directed at Gould with no space for reply. Gould’s celebrity makes him a target for professional and personal interrogation and with many of these inquiries made in direct address, the spectator is placed under the microscope with the pianist. The contrast with the previous segment is distinctive – Gould was engaged and unhurried in the expansive icescape of “Solitude” while the interviewers and their environments of “Questions with No Answers” constantly shift, their tone becoming increasingly frustrated, their questions becoming increasing accusatory. When Gould is finally questioned about his rumoured homosexuality, the short ends with a crying woman asking into a telephone why Gould stopped calling her. Girard personifies the line drawn between Gould and the outside world, placing us on the literal side of the pianist.

19. A Letter – Shots of a handwritten letter by Gould describing in voiceover his unrequited love for an unnamed woman. It would be another fourteen years after Girard’s film that Cornelia Foss would confirm having an affair with Gould for nearly five years, dispelling rumours of any homosexuality kept in secret by him. The segment might suggest some small trauma undergone as a young man, but Girard only teases, once again resisting the urge to define Gould by any single event. We’ve all loved and lost at some point, haven’t we? That doesn’t make us Glenn Gould.

spheres20. Gould Meets McLaren: animation by Norman McLaren – The only portion of Thirty Two Short Films not constructed for the film, Norman McLaren and René Jodoin’s Spheres (1969) becomes here an abstract embodiment on Girard’s fractal examination of Gould. In the animated short, a pearl multiplies and recombines through various arrangements to the sound of Gould performing a Bach fugue. The sequence provides a multiplicity of views on its subject, tantalizing in form and movement, revealing aspects that express mathematical dynamism rather than stultifying definition.

21. The Tip – Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7 provides the lively soundtrack to this near-comic piece on Gould’s adroit playing of the stock market, particularly his insight into Sotex, a small resource company that sees Gould riding stock surges during the 1973 oil price shock. Fast-talking brokers and Gould’s confederates in investing (a collection of serving staff in a restaurant) provide some character driven entertainment that edges at Coen Brothers-like humour. “The Tip” places Gould at the centre of a privately successful world that allies him with the common man rather than establishment insiders.

22. Personal Ad – Gould at his most weirdly indulgent, playing at overly intellectual pranks but backing out at the last minute with schoolboy timidity. He reads aloud a bizarrely constructed “lonely hearts” ad for “telephonic seduction.” Gould describes himself as, amongst other things, “alcoholically abstemious, tirelessly talkative, … minimally turquoise, maximally ecstatic moon”. Placing his call to order his ad, Gould can only hang up and giggle. Frivolous and philosophical.

23. Pills – Possibly the most impressive segment of the film, “Pills” considers the pharmacopeia Gould relied upon through a series of close-ups of pills matched by Feore’s Gould reciting the names of the individual medications, as well as their purposes, side-effects, and incompatibilities. Naturally, each successive drug is specifically identified as unsafe with the previous one, and the short becomes a boldly coloured and ironically delivered encyclopedia of prescription medication. Does the scene burst the bubble of Gould’s genius or add the romantic tragedy of musicians and their clichéd substance abuse?

24. Margaret Pacsu: friend – Another talking head, this one recounting her concerns with Gould’s elaborate personal pharmacy. The sound of a passing plane distracts Ms Pacsu at the scene’s end, deflating the moment with a banal disruption and undercutting the interviewee’s presumed authority. The issue is serious but Girard once again prevents it from assuming any predominance.

diary-of-one-day25. Diary of One Day – Handwritten medical notes by Gould recounting his vital signs and medications (remember him taking his blood pressure in “Passion According to Gould?”) are intercut with X-ray views of Gould playing the Gigue from Schoenberg’s Suite, op. 25 (actually footage of Girard and crew). The physical effort of performing is again foregrounded but the fragmented views of “Diary of One Day” bring Gould to near abstraction, rendering him to something not entirely unlike the audio track in “Variation in C Minor.” We finally see into Gould, although not in the sense intended. The decontextualized scientific view loses its rational authority, referring then back to the pianist’s legendary hypochondria.

motel-wawa26. Motel Wawa – From room 102 in the Wawa Motor Inn, Gould discusses over the telephone his belief in the supernatural and recounts a shared dream with his mother. Wawa, a small community in Northern Ontario near Lake Superior, was a frequent refuge for Gould during summers in the 1960s and ’70s, locking himself away in his room writing when not out communing with nature. Gould’s professional advancements and successes no longer concern Girard, as Gould is now represented as a man in his own head, preoccupied with deeper, more personal ideas.

27. Forty-Nine – Gould calls his cousin from a phone booth with recollections of Schoenberg’s fascination with numerology and his fear of turning ages divisible by or adding up to 13. Schoenberg died at age 76 (7+6=13) and with Gould at the cusp of turning 49 (4+9=13), he can’t help but consider the fateful concern expressed to Schoenberg by an astrologer. The transient space of the phone booth elaborates on Gould’s isolation and his mindfulness of his own mortality brings an air of melancholy to the piece, but Gould’s second discussion of the metaphysical represents him as inquisitive and open-minded rather than paranoid or superstitious.

28. Jessie Greig: cousin – The last talking head of Thirty Two Short Films, Gould’s cousin Jessie Greig recounts her calls with Gould during his last week alive – being very serious, sensing his control slipping away, unaware of the appreciation the world held for him. Greig seems like the closest the film offers to a genuine confidante to Gould, bringing great weight to a film form that Girard has previously employed with great gaiety.

29. Leaving – Gould drives at night in the rain, pulls his massive black Lincoln aside, and calls Jessie so she can hear his performance of Bach on the car’s radio. A news broadcast announces Gould’s death from a stroke over a black screen. The segment is tenderly dark and lonely, hardly the send-off one expects of such an iconoclast. The massive and nationally broadcast funeral (alluded to by Grieg in describing the widespread love held for Gould and unknown to the pianist) goes unseen. Ultimately, Gould’s death is treated as unrepresentable.

30. Voyager – Energetic and propelling piano music accompanies footage of a rocket’s blast-off. The immense power that loosens the massive ship’s tethers from Earth’s gravity seems to carry the departed Gould with it. Gould’s fate is a truly celestial one.

31. Aria – Gould walks back into the arctic void, receding from view, returning to the northern oblivion like a mystical figure returning to some unseen home. The voiceover informs us of Gould’s lonely legacy – having his recording of Bach included among the Voyager spacecraft’s exemplars of this planet’s musical achievements that now travel beyond our solar system as evidence of intelligent life here on Earth. It is a transcendent legacy particularly fitting for Gould, an ultimate solitude that hopes for discovery once again in some far-off possibility. As the image of Gould recedes into the frozen landscape, we cannot help but consider what we know of the man leaving us. Girard’s prismatic film manages to print the fact and the legend, revealing this Canadian icon and global celebrity with his complexities, his ambiguities, his contradictions, and his mythologies all still intact. Thirty Two Short Films has obliquely avoided the reductive traps of the musical bio-pic without explicitly denying them, making Gould and the cinema better for it.

anne-simon32. End Credits – The final segment of Thirty Two Short Films is often derided, as if end credits simply create themselves. The scrolling names pay tribute to the individuals who made the film possible, but while Sony Classical has paid due treatment to Glenn Gould with its DVD of Thirty Two Short Films and a box set of Gould’s CBC television appearances, a high-definition edition of Girard’s film is still needed. Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould has the bold, ambitious, high-cultural character worthy of the Criterion Collection’s art house sensibility. For a packaging treatment, we recommend French illustrator Anne Simon, whose work on Corinne Maier‘s graphic biographies of FreudMarx, and Einstein exhibits a straightforward cartooning technique and a talent for inventive and whimsical layouts. We’d welcome seeing Simon apply her talents to the music world in a Criterion edition of Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould.

O Canada BannerCredits: First, this post contributes to the O Canada! Blogathon and so we must, as always, thank blogathon kingpins Kristina at Speakeasy and Ruth at Silver Screenings for letting MMC! participate and providing a reason to promote this great film for a wacky “C.” There are lots more great posts out there, so be sure to head over to their blogs and peruse the flannel-covered goodness.

This proposed Criterion edition includes a number of Gould’s performances included in the Sony Classical box set of the pianist’s television appearances for the CBC.  An audio commentary with Girard and McKellar has been imagined for this release, taking inspiration from the commentary provided on the home media release of Girard’s The Red Violin (1998). Brian Levine of The Glenn Gould Foundation has previously introduced screenings of Thirty Two Short Films and so was chosen to provide an essay, while film critic Ashley Clark was chosen as friend of Criterion and for his expressed admiration for the film during a Film Comment podcast. The cover summary takes inspiration from the synopsis provided on the Sony Classics DVD and from a TIFF screening description.

This post owes particular debts to Darrell Varga’s “Locating the Artist in Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould,” Kevin Bazzana’s “Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould,” and David Scott Diffrient’s Filming a Life in Fragments: Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould as ‘Biorhythmic-Pic.'” Those looking for more on Gould should consider The Glenn Gould Foundation‘s webpage.

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11 thoughts on “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (Francois Girard, 1993)

  1. Silver Screenings February 4, 2017 / 8:40 pm

    Thank you for sharing the actual film with your post. I was able to watch the first 3 films before I was blocked due to copyright reasons – but now I’ve whetted my appetite and must track this down to watch the rest!

    This is a clever way to profile an artist, a really unusual approach that can make a film legendary. I’m so glad you chose to bring this to the blogathon! 🙂

    • spinenumbered February 4, 2017 / 9:34 pm

      Thanks very much! I’ve updated the post to try and clear out the dead links. We’ll see how many remain active…

  2. charsmoviereviews February 5, 2017 / 2:25 am

    Such a detailed and unique post! I did not know that this film is a proposed part of the Criterion Collection (which I adore), and I love when Canadian films are showcased and preserved by Criterion. I am excited to watch the links!

    • spinenumbered February 5, 2017 / 3:01 am

      Thirty Two Short Films isn’t officially a title being considered by the Criterion Collection. This blog is dedicated to films I think are deserving of spine numbers and what those editions might look like. A film blog can dream, can’t it?

      • charsmoviereviews February 5, 2017 / 3:08 am

        It certainly can! I will definitely take a closer look through your blog and your posts. I noticed that you have Freaks and Random Harvest on your list – two of my absolute favourites.

      • spinenumbered February 5, 2017 / 3:17 am

        Thanks Charlene! We movie-loving Canucks have to stick together. Your reviews are great and your emphasis on the Criterion Collection is obviously appreciated.

      • charsmoviereviews February 5, 2017 / 3:18 am

        We most certainly do! And thanks for the kind words 🙂

  3. Kristina February 6, 2017 / 12:24 am

    Well done, so much detail and insight into every part of this. Thanks so much for putting all this work into it and for being part of the blogathon!

    • spinenumbered February 6, 2017 / 1:15 am

      Thanks! And thanks again for putting this on!!!

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