An Artist’s Overtaking: François Girard’s “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould” (1993)

A stylized black and white photo of Glenn Gould performing Bach.

When thinking back on the sum of our lives, we don’t recall moments within some linear narrative. Rather, life becomes a series of snapshots, portraits, and photographs that manifest not just physically but also internally. How often do we see a photo that transports us to that moment, and yet in the interim, where has the present gone? Invariably, memory is similar to a time machine where in one minute we are in the present day only for us seconds later to become a child once again. Gone go the linear narratives of the everyday.

No other biopic depicts this better than François Girard’s 1993 film, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. Although listed as a documentary, the film functions as a biopic, and its technique works so well that I can’t help but wonder why more directors don’t attempt this approach. Instead, within most biopics we’re often presented with too long a lifetime, too many facts, and we never get to know the person on the inside. We remain distant, outside observers. In contrast, Thirty Two Short Films operates as a memory, because what else is time but compartmentalized moments within our minds?

The film opens with the image of a small, black speck surrounded by a frozen, white landscape. This, of course, is an image of Gould from afar, where he appears dark and dissolving within the frost. The narration then discloses the fact that his mother helped him grow as a musician, often sitting with him at the piano and then playing ‘guess the notes’ from the other room. We learn that it was she who introduced him to Bach, and that from then on the boy was immersed into music. A performer who was greatly admired by Leonard Bernstein, we are witness to the young artist sitting off by himself, revealing that he could read music before he could read words. This, he says, ‘hardly constitutes as a miracle,’ but rather represents his ‘facility for a certain kind of minutiae.’ Then, in the next clip, Gould is an adult. The time between we can fill in for ourselves.

Colm Feore plays the Canadian musician with just the right amount of vulnerability and eccentricity. His emotions never get out of hand, and nor does his oddness ever veer into cliché. As example, when we’re witness to the list of pills he takes, we are presented with a humorous montage of colors, listing off what pills should be taken and not be taken together. ‘You’re taking all these pills?’ he is eventually asked, at which he smiles and replies, ‘Not all at once.’

Gould performed live up until the age of 32, when he then transitioned into recording, as he believed that performing was something of the past and that media would become the future. On this, he would be correct, since one of his Bach recordings was ultimately transported on Voyager 1. In his review, Roger Ebert notes, ‘The movie does not deliver, or suggest, a rounded life story. But it leaves us with a much richer idea of his life than a conventional biopic might have.’ Indeed, we are ultimately presented with a stronger character due to the everyday trivia that is left out. The dialogue herein all involves him, even when he overhears guests at a diner. In this scene, one by one their voices fill into him what we presume is a sort of music that mentally taps away at his fingers.

Unlike Leonard Bernstein, who did not like to be alone, Gould did, however not completely, as he regularly engaged in long phone conversations yet said little in person. In the film, Gould says:

I don’t know what the effective ratio would be but I’ve always had a sort of intuition that for every hour you spend with other human beings, you need X number of hours alone. Now what that X represents, I don’t really know, whether it be 2 and 7/8ths or 7 and 2/8ths, but it’s a substantial ratio.

When an artist, one must be active—creating, practicing, achieving. There is simply no time to be idle, and Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould illuminates this. Eventually surrounded by a mess of books and his isolation, Gould is more cerebral than emotional, and Feore offers a thoughtful rendering of the aging performer who dies relatively young in Toronto due to a stroke at age 50.

In the film, Gould argues that the artist must operate in secret and be separate from the demands of the current market. This would, in turn, make the artist one of the most isolated creatures on earth. Yet when creating, it is only the hacks (or at least the very insecure) that worry about satisfying the public’s likes and commercial demands. The visionaries will be off by themselves. Who knew that such talent could be right?

Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould is an outstanding film, and is not just merely for those interested in Gould himself, as the film offers a narrative exercise worth exploring. Furthermore, the ending, clever and organic in its delivery, mentions the Voyager, where we are then provided this voiceover:

In the fall of 1977, the US government sent two ships, Voyagers 1 and 2, into space, where they are eventually destined to reach the edge of our galaxy. In the hope that someone, somewhere, would intercept these craft, a variety of messages were placed on board, that would be capable of communicating the existence of an intelligent creature, living on a planet called Earth. Among these was included a short prelude by Johann Sebastian Bach, as performed by Glenn Gould. Voyagers 1 and 2 left our solar system, respectively, in 1987 and 1989.

The film ends as it begins, with an image of Gould as a small, dark speck, dissolving into the white, downy void, albeit he never goes away, merely grows smaller until the ending overtakes us. Such a contrast, this is, to Gould’s legacy—a man and artist who was right about many things—his art and audience among them. Through his recordings, he shows us that he knew how to live on in memory, and how to never dissolve. Life is never straightforward, so why tell it that way? We think we know someone, but how little we do know of anyone. The artist will ultimately overtake us.

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