Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993) Director: François Girard Cast: Colm Feore, Derek Keurvorst, Katya Ladan
‘Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould’ is an artistic and innovative character study on the Canadian classical pianist. It’s a diverse collection of vignettes ranging from interviews with Gould’s colleagues, to interpretive dramatizations and experimental pieces.
So who is Glenn Gould and why are there 32 short films about him? What’s striking is that there isn’t a straight forward answer to that question after watching the films, which may lead one to believe that the films are a failure yet the truth is very much the opposite.
We do learn that Glenn Gould is a Toronto-born child prodigy who learned to read music before reading letters and his virtuosic recording of J.S. Bach’s music was launched out of our galaxy on NASA’s Voyagers I & II in the hopes of greeting extraterrestrial lifeforms. However, the brilliance of Thirty Two Short Films is not in the facts conveyed but how it captures the essence of Gould: the inner workings of his mind, his music and his eccentricities in a way that a biography couldn’t.
While a biography on Glenn Gould would cover the major points of his life in an informative manner, each of the thirty-two short films is like a paint stroke of an impressionistic portrait. Take for example in the short film “Gould meets Gould”, it’s an imaginary interview between past and future Goulds; their faces hidden in shadow perhaps suggesting we can never truly grasp the extent of his genius.
For a non-linear, non-narrative movie, Thirty Two Short Films maintain its cohesion through the use of music. Gould’s incredible music performances and recordings are at the forefront, it’s the through line absent a story or central conflict (ie. Man Vs Self, Man Vs Nature) in the films.
Less a critique than it is an observation that Thirty Two Short Films can be quite arcane at times. For instance in “Forty-Five Seconds and a Chair”, Glenn Gould is sitting down, staring silently at the camera for less than a minute. The possible story behind this vignette, which could be lost on many viewers, is that Gould would often bring his low sitting chair with him to his performances; an unusual position which contributed to his technical proficiency. It also depicts how Gould preferred to play music in his mind instead of practising piano.
Other times, some films can be fairly abstract and perplexing. Take for example the animated short “Gould Meets McLaren” played to Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. Visually, it’s simply a bunch of spheres aligning and realigning with each other. Is this some insight into the mind of Gould or an ingenious graphical representation of music?
While many of the films are open to interpretation, it’s evident that Colm Feore’s portrayal of Glenn Gould is skillful and studied. Equal to the task is director François Girard, take for example the opening shot of Gould out in the distance in the cold barren Arctic landscape, evoking feelings of solitude.
One of the stronger pieces by Girard, is Gould having breakfast at a busy local diner. Through editing, framing and sound layering, Girard masterfully conveys Gould’s ability to eavesdrop in and compartmentalize each conservation in the diner where for most people it could be a cacophony of voices.
The individual short films may not add up to a full and complete life story, but we get an intriguing insight into Glenn Gould compared to reading a list of his biographical facts. As unconventional as ‘Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould’ is, it’s well worth a look for anyone curious about one of the 20th Century’s greatest musicians.