Skip to content

Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993)

by on 2010/07/30

Funny how one’s mind plays tricks. I have a memory — just a flash, a fragment — of seeing the poster for this movie in the music room of my high school. The trick is I graduated years before the movie was released. The poster couldn’t have existed then, couldn’t have been in that room, and I simply couldn’t have seen it. Years earlier a French teacher provided a possible explanation: “Deja vu is your brain accidentally filing a short-term memory in long-term storage.” Of course I could be misremembering that definition too. Or maybe I dreamt it all. I’d willingly admit to either possibility for — when I recently saw Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould — I felt an odd sense of both deja vu and lucid dreaming. It’s just that kind of film.

Long out of print on video, its rarity piqued my interest. And the high prices sought — even for used copies — convinced me. (Convinced me to borrow it from the public library that is.) Based on the life of famed Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, Thirty Two Short Films portrays its subject as an intense, inconsistent (even self-contradictory) eccentric, an egocentrist more likely to veer into gentle whimsy than delusion or threat. Like other modern recluses he comes to rely on technology, because it allows him to live life on his own terms. But his foibles are harmless, even charming, and he never descends into the paranoia, lunacy, or rabid technophilia you might expect. Between suggested drug use and obsessive numerology, this film’s Gould is a threat only to himself.

The cast is both large and small. The common thread is Gould himself, usually portrayed by Colm Feore (The Wrong Guy). He conveys his character without becoming melodramatic or schizoid. While I felt he didn’t resemble the actual Glenn Gould as much as he does Michael Gross or Clark Gregg, he does evoke Gould with delivery and intonation, gestures and carriage, and a palpable enthusiasm. It’s not a one-man show however; a host of other participants appear, though briefly. Aficionados of CanCon may spot the film’s cowriter Don McKellar (eXistenZ) and actor Carlo Rota (Little Mosque on the Prairie), provided they don’t blink.

While existing Gould fans may be drawn to the story of the tragically short-lived musician, I suspect most critics will concern themselves with the unusual style suggested by the title’s promise of “Thirty Two Short Films”. Let’s just say that if you were perplexed by the stylish anthologies Go, Natural Born Killers, or Run Lola Run, you may need to steel yourself. At an average duration of three minutes each, the vignettes here are both more numerous and, ironically, slower-paced than those examples. (I should also mention, utterly lacking in their bloodshed.)

Some will find drawbacks to the style, and I can readily imagine those objections. Some segments don’t resolve themselves, if they are meant to be narratively cohesive at all. One such example is an interview that trails off mid-sentence. Some segments are abstract, mathematical animations set to music with no apparent purpose. (They draw our attention to Gould’s work, yes, but the consumption of pure audio is not a function we necessarily require of a visual medium.) And just enough of the juxtaposed segments refer to each other that we might wonder what we’re missing in the ones that (apparently) don’t. Here’s another instance where confusion and frustration may be defended as representative of the man himself but, given the stylistic elegance elsewhere, that argument simply excuses the arbitrary. In fact its direction renders it less a documentary than a kind of performance art project, and many will feel it needs a documentary of its own (or at least a commentary) to interpret it.

Once at a university bookshop, I came across a science fiction paperback whose name eludes me now. While it could have been considered epistolary, it told its story with more than just logs and letters; the author used a wide variety of styles to show many sides of an alien tale. Thirty Two Short Films strikes me as its cinematic equivalent in a hybrid of doc and biopic. On one hand there is probably something for all. On the other its scattered shots will likely lose some viewers. But the quirk of its style is readily welcome — even appropriate — in approaching the eccentricity and ineffability of Gould. Still, while I appreciated the effort, I also wondered if the filmmakers might have taken their technique even farther. With all due respect to the great Feore, what if Gould had never been shown at all…?

What did I personally expect of this film? Perhaps something more biographical, a series of scenes from a life, arranged chronologically. Was I disappointed with the actual film? Not really. As I feel about many things, it was neither better nor worse, just different. The medium, as employed by this piece, reveals both more and less of the subject than a traditional biography. Before watching, I knew little to nothing of Glenn Gould. Do I know more now? I’m not sure. Maybe. Do I understand him? No. I only hope so. On balance, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould felt like a technical exercise; I admired it more than I enjoyed it. But then it’s just that kind of film.

* * * *


93 minutes

  1. Yes, mr. Hacker, I well remember this film, though I rented it the year it came out. It was Colm Feore who was the cause…went straight from this one to the equally quirky Beautiful Dreamers. But as for the music room at YM…I honestly can’t recall ever being in it…did you take music then?

    • Hacker Renders permalink

      I did indeed. My musicianship was as practiced as my memory. I made it all up as I went along.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Videos To See Based On Their Reviews (2010) « Geek vs Goth
  2. Bon Cop Bad Cop (2006) « Geek vs Goth
  3. Last Night (1998) « Geek vs Goth
  4. Michael, Tuesdays and Thursdays (2011) « Geek vs Goth
  5. The Englishman’s Boy (2008) « Geek vs Goth
  6. Five Great CanCon Music Movies « Geek vs Goth
  7. Haack: The King of Techno (2004) « Geek vs Goth
  8. The Trotsky (2009) | Geek vs Goth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: