A great biopic dices its subject’s life into 32 self-contained pieces

A great biopic dices its subject’s life into 32 self-contained pieces

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: In honor of 12 Years A Slave, The Fifth Estate, Kill Your Darlings, and Camille Claudel 1915—all opening in the next few days—we single out some exceptional biopics.

Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993)

Biopics are generally useless-to-terrible because they attempt to impose a tidy narrative trajectory onto a single human life, while simultaneously sticking to various facts and including key achievements. If only more filmmakers would take the fragmented, kaleidoscopic approach of Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, which captures the essence of the famed pianist (and radio broadcaster) by honoring his unruliness. Directed by François Girard and written by Girard with Don McKellar, the film is exactly what its title indicates: 32 individual, self-contained scenes, ranging from six minutes to 45 seconds, each one capturing some small aspect of Gould’s personality and/or illuminating some small aspect of his work. Example: Gould was a hypochondriac, but rather than struggle to shoehorn that detail into a contrived story, Thirty Two Short Films devotes one brief chapter to artfully arranged close-ups of colorful pills, accompanied by a disembodied voice calmly identifying each medication and listing its potential conflicts with the others.

Released in 1993, the film made enough of a splash in arthouses to inspire an episode of The Simpsons, “22 Short Films About Springfield,” a few years later. Nonetheless, it’s apparently perceived as too daring to be emulated by other biopics, which is a shame. The movie’s dirty little secret is that it really does tell a traditional story: Events occur mostly in chronological order, proceeding from Gould’s childhood (“Lake Simcoe”) to his death (“Leaving”), and fictional shorts in which he’s portrayed by an actor (Colm Feore, now probably best known as Loki’s biological dad in Thor) are often immediately followed and clarified by documentary shorts interviewing people who knew him. But the short-film format frees Girard and McKellar from the tedium of laboriously connecting everything, allowing them to riff at will on Gould’s various eccentricities (recording techniques, interview strategies, obsession with numerology) while slowly constructing a coherent, mesmerizing portrait of a man for whom the act of listening, much more than simply the piano, constituted an art form.

Availability: Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould is available on DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix, and for rental or purchase from Amazon Instant Video.

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