Hidden Gem: ‘Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould’ (1993)

Image via Rhombus Media
Image via Rhombus Media

Glenn Gould was a renowned Canadian pianist, whose work was divisive among peers. He was often regarded as a genius with a reputation for eccentric behaviour, and some psychologists suggest that he was on the autism spectrum. He could read and play music by the age of four and his methods of learning to play have been widely debated over the years. He chose to learn through books and saw no value in ongoing practical use of the instrument, and when he recorded his music he would often hum or sing as he played, resulting in an unorthodox and subjective sound. After achieving success as a concert pianist he chose to abandon live performances without warning, and from 1964 until his death in 1980 he never performed live again – the rest of his career was spent in studios.

To read about the Gould is a long, complex and often arduous task, and yet his life and career are thoroughly compelling. He was a man with such a kaleidoscope of talent (and personality) that to tell his story is a near impossible task. For a filmmaker to undertake such a charge would mean toiling over which particular light to cast him in, and no matter what direction a biopic would take, his life could not possibly have been given the service it deserves.

Director François Girard (Silk, Boychoir) accepted the challenge and in doing so conceived a unique and unconventional structure, which would ultimately reflect Gould’s own personality. Rather than telling a conventional narrative, Girard created a non-lineal sequence of short films, each embodying a different style of filmmaking, and each varying in length. From traditional period-piece accounts of Gould’s childhood to documentary pieces featuring friends & colleagues, as well as brief animated musical interludes, the film is a mixed bag of thematic contrasts that attempt to make sense of a complicated mind.

Image via Rhombus Media
Image via Rhombus Media

The structure of “32 Short Films” relates directly to what is considered to be Gould’s most famously played piece: The Golberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach, which consists of 32 compositions played back-to-back. Colm Feore stars as Gould, in what was something of a breakthrough role for him, and the film remains one of his most accomplished performances. His ability to embody the various personalities of Gould is incredible, and his on-screen charisma draws immediate comparisons to Geoffrey Rush’s Academy Award-winning performance as David Helfgott in Shine. Feore’s role preceded Rush’s by 2-years and sadly received only a fraction of the accolades. To watch 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould in retrospect highlights a bold, eccentric and audacious piece of filmmaking that few others have tempted to echo since.

Renowned Canadian actor and writer Don McKellar (Blindness, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, eXistenZ) co-wrote the film with Girard and channeled his own eccentricities into it. Known for being a quirky character actor, McKellar has earned himself a reputation for being a subversive and non-conformist voice in Canadian cinema, and Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould makes more sense knowing who the man with the pen is.

With an assortment of 32 short films, ranging from 2 to 6 minutes, it is fair to say that some of the chapters miss their mark, but then again what’s a composition without its tumultuous ups and downs? These few lacklustre moments are well compensated by the rest, and the result is a film that is on one hand a neatly woven medley of stories and on the other an erratic and complex disarray of ideas… and something of a masterpiece.