Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould
directed by Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont
(Canada, 106 minutes)
May 31, 2010 6:15 PM, SIFF Cinema
“Do you have a picture of the pain?” Phil Ochs once sang, in an elaborate string-driven pop-aria about the assassination of JFK and Robert Kennedy. Genius Within is a picture of the pain of Glenn Gould, the cherished, eccentric classical pianist who came from “hayseed” near-Toronto to dominate New York City with dangerously flamboyant Leonard Bernstein. He’d played Russia at the icy zenith of the Cold War (1957), to standing room and faint-and-you-can’t-fall audiences in Moscow, his intricate reinventions of Beethoven and Bach giving music-starved, politically alienated audiences a sense of transcendence their culture couldn’t provide.
From the same period of time that the similarly iconoclastic Ochs recorded “The Crucifixion,” quoted above, midway but sliding into the later 1960s, Gould was starting to work in new realms of spoken word over Canadian airwaves. A very tall man in a long overcoat and gloves and scarf and cap, his charming but awkward presence fed into the image of him as a mad young piano-trilling professor, which magazines like Time and Life found plenty of material from to work with. Did this typecasting of him lead him to hide away create narratives instead? Such as his classic radio documentary The Idea of North, in which he very precisely edited his amazing piano playing around tales of people heading to the top of the world, “not for work, but wanting to find something about themselves in.” About how important it is to “get close to ourselves even when we don’t get along with ourselves.”
Gould’s creative and personal life was richly paradoxical; the joys he brought to concert audiences sickened him, he hated performing, often canceling scheduled gigs, and eventually giving that all up by his last live performance, on April 14, 1964. Why should you care? Because a few minutes earlier, when veteran documentary director Michele Hozer uses a clip of Gould performing his highly successful Goldberg Variations with Leonard Bernstein, he is freaking on fire, his Jerry Lee Lewis-like energy and curly front locks flying into his face, his long nimble fingers trailing and tapping the keyboards in that incredibly instinctive way, infusing classical music with the drama and humor of contemporaneous live rock and roll. (Hopefully, when this film is released on DVD, more performances like this will be shown.)
But Gould heard the future in recorded sound — not the concert hall. First in introspective stories about people longing for spaces away from the battering, brutal world. And then, back to the music: in his continuous musical experimentation he started off playing with Minutemen-lightning speed, and then slowed down to Scott Walker-style pendant, dripping notes. Trying to make reality focus on what he’s trying to play, controlling everything around him at once. Surrounding reality rarely intrudes into Hozer’s biography of him; after Russia, Gould exists more and more only for himself, and this construction of his life shows only the occasional brief attempt to connect outside his bunker of self. He calls a strange collaboration with Petula Clark (a pop music obsession he has while driving “between relay towers”) a “failed, post-Freudian” experiment (whatever that means — would have loved to have heard it explained, but he probably never did say). Gould would keep on trying to reach out and bring the world in to work and play with him; this also includes his quietly desperate love life, mostly based on an unfortunate triangle with another pianist’s wife. (Rumors abounded about his sexuality otherwise, due to his strange powers of public appearance.) Some later compositions challenged the boundaries of Western composing just as much as his early ability to “take a composition apart and put it back together metaphorically,” as his great love Cornelia Foss described. (Great interviews with her, and photos of her here.) The most philosophically exciting moment (and a convincing example of Gould’s genius) may be when Gould prophesies a “kit” listeners will have in the future, in place of records, for audiences to not only play but make music themselves out of. It would have the basic materials composers and performers provide, but would be based on the listener putting it together for themselves, as opposed to simply receiving the expressions of their idols. At this point in the doc, Gould even starts to look a little like Brian Eno, and one wonders if they had ever met.
Gould was certainly an arguable heir of the “Renaissance Man” title bestowed upon him by friends. (He would not only read Shakespeare and Wilde out loud with his best friend, but improvise based on their writings, for Christ’s sake.) Yet his fetish for up-to-date technology, obsession with speed and the manipulation of time, and willingness to give up public connection for the after-hours life (he rarely ventured into daylight or kept to a normal schedule) will sound familiar. Not only Eno, but Gould also reminded me of everyone from Ochs to Walker to Nick Cave to Stephin Merritt; he is the “classical music doppleganger” to these semi-popular rock-folk-punk musicians, and if you have more than a casual interest in them, you will find Genius Within enjoyable, tragic, and illuminating as well. A few more clips of his live performances and short films and a few more minutes of his stories on CBC and I would have been overjoyed with this. As it is, a great primer on the misty madness of Glenn Gould.