Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould by Don McKellar & François Girard

BOMB 53 Fall 1995
Issue 53 053  Fall 1995

LONGFELLOW

Film #2

EXT. NIGHT. THE STREETS OF TORONTO.

A dark-coloured car drives through a series of rainy streetsWe follow this car from the outsidelooking in past the steady sweep of the wipersWe can only half make out the face of the driver through the wet windshieldover which the reflections of street lampsbuildingsand neon signs skitter nervously.

GLENN GOULD is driving Longfellowhis Lincoln Continentalthrough deserted downtown TorontoAn erratic rhythm begins to emerge from this series of reflectionsAs the inside of the car is lit upwe briefly glimpse GOULD’s impassive face as he allows his car to be guided by the night.

Slow music is heardin contrast to the angular visual rhythms of this scenepiano music.

EXT. NIGHT. DOWNTOWN.

The car has been parked haphazardly in front of a lone phone boothThe driver’s side door is wide open and the darkluxuriant music playing on the radio flows out to fill the barren urban landscapeA dark figure in a cloth raincoat is huddled over the phonedialingGLENN GOULD is making a call.

G.G.: Jesse, it’s me, guess what? I was out driving, and you know what came on the radio? Here … I’ll give you a clue.

He holds the receiver outside of the booth so she can hear the music.

G.G.: Well? … sure it’s one of the French Suites, but who’s playing?

He holds out the receiver againThe piece endsA mellifluous late night voice is heard over a black screen.

RADIO ANNOUNCER: And there you have it—the sarabande from Bach’s French Suite No. 1. A lovely little morsel early this morning from a young Mr. Glenn Gould.

 

FORTY-NINE

Film #26

EXT. DUSK. INDUSTRIAL ZONE, TORONTO.

Again we hear the music of SchoenbergWe are at the edge of an industrial service roadCars and trucks pass by in heavy trafficGOULD’s Lincoln Continental is parked near a telephone booth on the wide expanse of a vacant lot that lies on the other side of this highwayInside the boothGOULD is speaking to his cousin JessieGOULD’s face is seen through a screen of reflections which play across the glass door of the phone boothThe inside light flickers on and off due to faulty wiring.

G.G. (Nervously): Yes Jessie, it’s me. I was just out driving and … well I’m afraid you’ll have to put it back in the oven and indulge me for a minute. I’m in a bit of a state. I was driving along, when all of a sudden I became swept up in this wave of anxiety. It’s about Schoenberg … (pause) … Schoenberg! Well, you know that in his final years he was obsessed with numerology—numbers and so forth. So much so, in fact, that when he turned 65 he became terrified that he was going to die because his age was divisible by 13. The story goes that he was inconsolable until, finally, he went to an astrologer who assured him that he would survive until the next time the numbers conspired against him. Well great, he thought. I’ll be fine for 13 years, until I reach 78. Eleven years later, however, when he was 76, the astrologer wrote back to warn him that it’s not only those numbers that are divisible by 13 that he had to watch out for, but also those whose digits add up to 13—76, for example. Needless to say, Schoenberg was petrified, but not for long—He died three months later, the 13th of July, 1951. (pause) … I can’t help it. Schoenberg is still talking to me.

Suddenlythe light sputters offSilence.

G.G.: Jessie? Jessie, are you still there?

 

MOTEL WAWA

Film #28

INT. DUSK. A MOTEL ROOM, WAWA.

Wawa is a small town on the shores of Lake Superior where GOULD liked to spend time on his ownstaying in a small motel that faced the waterIt is hereunder a darkening skythat we find this lost corner of Gould’s world.

GOULD is in the middle of an interview with ELYSE MACH. He sits on the side of the bed with his back to usthe telephone receiver in his handAn open window in the center of the frame is the only source of light in the bleak motel roomAs GOULD speakswe slowly move inHe turnsstandscrosses the frame and looks out at the rugged landscapeWe creep inexorably forward until the window fills the entire frame.

ELYSE MACH: Mr. Gould, we’ve covered many of the topics that I wanted to cover. At this point I’d like to move on to some more … um … probing questions—if you don’t mind, that is.

G.G.: Well … yes, alright.

ELYSE MACH: Good. Tell me, do you believe in the supernatural? In ESP?

G.G.: You know, no one has ever asked me that before. ‘Do I believe in the supernatural?’ Of course. Yes (pause) … and no. (laughs) That is to say that I don’t adhere to this notion that one’s mind can actually be ‘read’ like a book or some such thing. But, that there are many inexplicable coincidences in the world seems, to me, patently obvious.

ELYSE MACH: Have you ever experienced one of those coincidences?

G.G.: Yes, several times … the oddest being when I was very young—nine years old, I believe. I should preface this by saying that I have always been fascinated by dreams—particularly the feelings that they can leave one with. There is a certain horrible feeling. A tragic sense of … loss, I suppose, that one can only derive from a dream. (pause) Anyway, I was nine years old, and I had this peculiar dream, in which I saw myself covered in red spots. The next morning, when I mentioned it to my mother, she too had had exactly the same dream. Now, at that time there was not even a hint of measles anywhere … no epidemics, no worries of any kind. So the dreams certainly weren’t affected by any common external suggestion. (pause) Four days later I had the measles.

ELYSE MACH: That is odd … um … continuing—I’d like to ask: Do you believe in the afterlife?

G.G.: Well, I was brought up as a Presbyterian, though I did stop being a church goer, ohh, about the age of 18 … but I always have had a tremendously strong sense that there is, indeed, a hereafter … that we all must reckon with, and lead our lives according to, this belief that there is, inevitably, a transformation of the spirit. As a consequence, I find all ‘here-and-now’ philosophies quite repellent … lax, if you will. I do recognize, however, that it is a great temptation to try and formulate a comfortable theory of eternal life, so as to reconcile oneself to the inevitability of death. But I’d like to think that’s not what I’m doing—I honestly don’t think that I’m creating a deliberate self-reassuring process. For me, it intuitively seems right … I’ve never had to work at convincing myself of a life hereafter. After all, don’t you think it seems infinitely more plausible than its opposite … oblivion?

 

ARIA (REPRISE)

Film #32

EXT. NIGHT. THE HEAVENS.

The stars in the night sky glide in mournful arabesquesglittering in clustersseparatingslowly disappearing.

The following text is read:

A l’automne de 1977 le gouvernement américain a lancé dans l’espace Voyager 1 et Voyager II, deux vaisseaux destiné à explorer les limites de nôtre galaxie. Dans l’espoir que quelq’un quelquepart intercepte ces vaisseaux, ils y ont mis toutes sortes de messages communiquant l’existence d’une vie intelligente sur la planet terre. Parmi ces messages on peut entendre cette petite fugue de Jean Sébastien Bach interprétée par Gould.
Voyager I et II ont respectivement quitté nôtre système solaire en 1987 et 1989.

Subtitles:

In the fall of 1977, the US Government sent two ships, Voyagers I and II, into space where they are eventually destined to reach the edge of our galaxy. In the hope that someone, somewhere would intercept these crafts, a variety of messages were placed on board that would be capable of communicating the existence of an intelligent creature living on a planet called Earth. Among these was included a short fugue by Johannes Sebastian Bach, as performed by Glenn Gould.
Voyagers I and II left our solar system, respectively, in 1987 and 1989.

For a moment it seems like the mechanics of the heavens may have been revealedbut then the sun slowly rises into the frame and bleaches the screen white.

And once again we face the Arctic desert.

Here it would seem that we are experiencing a memoryWe see the exact sequence from the opening montagebut in reverse.

GOULD passes by the camera and thenfurther onturns to take a final look back at the world he is leavingImplacablyhe continues his journey until he has once again become a tinyblack dot at the center of the framean unforgettable line that extends straight to the heart of our memories.

The full script is comprised of 32 distinct and highly individual films which encompass many different visual styles. This rather fragmented format, which draws its structural inspiration from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, is used to avoid the pitfalls of presenting a conventional approach to such a complex artist as Glenn Gould. Instead, we seek to offer, with the utmost respect, a series of impressions and images based on Gould’s work, his thoughts, and his life. More specifically, Thirty-Two Films also means 32 treatments, 32 titles on screen, and, most importantly, 32 pieces of music taken from Gould’s immense repertoire.

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Originally published in

BOMB 53, Fall 1995

Featuring interviews with Jo Baer, June Jordan, Kelly Reichardt, Abel Ferrara, Catherine Murphy, Mac Wellman, Lucie Brock-Broido, Wayne Wang, and Roy Hargrove.

Read the issue
Issue 53 053  Fall 1995