Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

Locating the Artist in Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

Locating the Artist in Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould

Article excerpt

Resume : Par une analyse du portrait complexe de l'excentrique pianiste et compositeur, Glenn Gould, que Francois Girard brosse dans Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould, l'auteur etudie cette icone nationale a la lumiere des images multiples et contradictoires qui existent a l'interieur du film et en a parallele avec l'oeuvre. Girard questionne les concepts de biographie, de documentaire et de fiction tout en suggerant que la valeur culturelle de Gould est produite a la fois par des institutions comme le Canadian Broadcasting Corporation et par un reseau de relations entre la culture des medias globaux et la specificite de l'espace, du lieu, du travail et des notions de valeur.

Some people think I'm eccentric because I carry around my own special chair for playing, wear two pairs of gloves in the summertime, soak my hands in hot water before a concert, or put on rubber gloves to go swimming.1

For Gould a musical work was an abstract entity that could be fully comprehended in the mind in the absence of performance, without even the recollection of sounds or of the physical means of production. A musical work thus existed beyond the sensory experience of it.2

It is the contrapuntal relation between these elements-the image of pianist, composer, and broadcaster Glenn Gould as eccentric and the Apollonian striving for transcendence in his art-that is the challenge of his cinematic representation. The reconciliation of these counterpoints is further complicated by the artist's function as national icon. What Francois Girard's film, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (Canada, 1993), achieves is interesting for its treatment of the subject, neither conventionally linear drama nor documentary; it instead traces a path through multiple perspectives of Glenn Gould, demonstrating that the subject of Gould is a complex text formed through multiple and overlapping interpretations. It is a path through the imagined solitude of the North and the energy and chaos of the urban South, and this dialectic emerges in the representation of multiple subject positions for the artist, confounding essentialist formations of cultural production.

In a description of the implications of Gould's approach to music, Edward Said points out,

To master counterpoint is therefore in a way almost to play God.... Counterpoint is the total ordering of sound, the complete management of time, the minute subdivision of musical space, and absolute absorption for the intellect.... Gould's contrapuntal performances come as close as I can imagine to delivering an inkling of what might be at stake in the composition and performance of counterpoint, minus perhaps any grossly political import. Not the least of this achievement, however, is that he never recoils from the comic possibility that high counterpoint may only be a parody, pure form aspiring to the role of world-historical wisdom.3

Said suggests that counterpoint as authorial position is both manifest and deconstructed in Gould's music. While the challenge of the film director is to create a totality of time and musical (as well as visual) space, in accordance with Said's description of Gould's music, what we have with the film is likewise a series of images of the artist that circulates within a larger field of images in which the project of a singular totality is impossible, and this is what Said hints at in his "comic possibility" of counterpoint, understood in this case as parody of nationalist mythology. In this essay I am interested in the cultural conventions through which art and this artist are represented, and the process through which Girard's Gould raises useful questions of authorship. Indeed, what the film provides is a challenging intervention in debates over art and artists in relation to national culture.

The release of this film coincided with substantial interest and posthumous scholarly debates over Gould's work and image. As Kevin Bazzana, in his published dissertation on Gould's performance style, notes,

The surge of publicity surrounding his sudden death focused international attention on Gould, and led to a reassessment of his work. …

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