Key Figure

09.10.10

Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont, Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, 2009, black-and-white and color film, 109 minutes. Left: Cornelia Foss and Glenn Gould on the cruise ship the R.M.S. Segwun, Lake Muskoka, Ontario, June 1968. Personal photo of Christopher Foss. Right: Glenn Gould in Nassau, Bahamas, 1956. Photo: Jock Carroll.


ASIDE FROM THE ABSURD TITLE and what has become a conventional—but in my book, cavalier—use of re-creations, Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont’s documentary about Glenn Gould is both an excellent primer and a reminder of just how revelatory it was to hear, for the first time, Gould’s Bach recordings. By foregrounding the structure of the music, he made the Baroque sound utterly modern. (I’d say the same for his readings of Beethoven, although others might disagree.)

As more than a few of the authoritative talking heads attest in Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould—it really is a laughable title—the Canadian pianist was one of the twentieth century’s greatest keyboard artists. He gave his first solo recital in Toronto in 1947 at age fourteen and made his New York debut eight years later. His instant stardom was attributable to his dazzling piano technique and a musical intelligence that allowed him to radically rethink and hear afresh the warhorses of the classical repertory. It didn’t hurt that he was wildly handsome and, like many shy people, clownishly funny, and that his method of fingering the keys—he used a custom-made piano chair that was only fourteen inches high and allowed him to attack the piano from below—was as weird as it was effective. He also sang quite loudly when he played, as if his voice could coax from the piano exactly the sound he heard in his head.

The day after his first New York appearance, he signed an exclusive recording contract with Columbia. The movie includes an amusing and touching sequence of Gould in the Columbia studio telling a skeptical producer that he’s going to begin with the Goldberg Variations. The recording became a classical best seller. In 1981, a year before his death at age fifty, Gould made a second, very different recording of the same work. The two bookend his career and in retrospect become a meditation on mortality.

Hozer and Raymont’s movie is a fast-moving clip job, but it is no less fascinating for it. There are about a half dozen documentaries about Gould, as well as an archive of radio and television programs that Gould himself produced after 1964, when he stopped performing live, explaining that he hated playing on strange pianos in strange halls and having to deal with various conductors, some of whom could not comprehend what he was doing. At the opening of the film Gould describes himself as existing entirely within media, and in the second half of his career, he took control of the analog recording studio in a way that prefigures the digital age. An illuminating sequence has Gould and his audio engineer at work, Gould hovering over the mixing board offering suggestions and then taking control of the dials himself.

The filmmakers claim that they have substantial new material from Russian archives of Gould’s 1957 Soviet Union concert tour, which put him on the international map and, according to another piano giant, Vladimir Ashkenazy, was an amazing experience both for him and for the more than capacity audiences. Still, aside from the Ashkenazy interview, a few photos, and some very brief moving-image sequences, there’s not enough material here to justify a new movie about Gould.

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Trailer for Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould.

The real journalistic coup is an interview with Cornelia Foss, who only recently publicly acknowledged her long love affair with Gould. She and her husband, the composer/conductor/pianist Lukas Foss, became friends with Gould in 1962. Soon after, her involvement with Gould turned romantic. In 1968, she left her husband and, with their two children, moved to Toronto. She and Gould planned to marry, but after five years, she left him to return to Lukas. Her lucid account of this period and the affectionate memories that the children, who are now middle-aged, have of their substitute father refute previous portraits of the undeniably eccentric pianist as an ascetic recluse or, conversely, shagging groupies like a rock star. What is extremely sad is Cornelia’s description of Gould’s descent into paranoia during the years they spent together, his psychological instability likely exacerbated by his use of prescription drugs including antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds. The film achieves its stated aim of “humanizing” a great artist and a great star while eschewing pop psychology.

Still, I have one serious caveat. Having considerably more audio than visual material, the filmmakers resort to the common but questionable technique of re-created imagery. In shot after shot, a Gould stand-in is shown at a distance and with his face turned from the camera, walking alone through the city, the countryside, and, ridiculously, through the lobby of a New York hotel after the first unsuccessful attempt to revive the relationship with Foss, and along a beach in the Hamptons after a second attempt ends in failure. Much more heartrending is a close-up of the log Gould kept of his compulsive attempts to reach his ex-lover by phone.

Gould, who dressed regardless of the weather in a cap and a long overcoat, his neck swathed in a woolen muffler, his hands protected by thick mittens, is an easy figure to simulate. But to what end? If the filmmakers want to suggest his loneliness, the impression is negated by the presence of the camera and the unseen crew behind it. How could these shots have possibly come into being? Wouldn’t the media-savvy Gould have been aware of being tailed by paparazzi? Wouldn’t he have objected? The re-creations make no sense emotionally or psychologically, and what’s more, Gould almost certainly would have hated them.

Amy Taubin

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould opens Friday, September 10 in New York. For more details, click here.