TODAY’S LOSER FILM REVIEW: GENIUS WITHIN

First a disclaimer: I proudly count myself among the seven earthlings who prefer the ’81 re-do of the Variations. (Which is in fact a ludicrous understatement. I’d argue for its being — both in spite of and in some ways because of its many acknowledged flaws — the most gorgeous lament in the history of recorded music. Among inhabitants of Alpha Centauri, Gould’s birthplace, the second version evidently enjoys much wider acclaim.)

OK, that’s out of the way. Onward.

We’ve become pretty comfortable with the idea that films depicting real events and real people are not court cases. Not even when — as in, say, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Un coupable idéal or Errol Morris’s Thin Blue Line — this is effectively what they are: acts of rogue, post hoc adjudication. Documentaries tell the truth only by being, in a purely literal sense, false. That is their virtue. Whatever we mean by “the truth” (as differentiated from “the facts”), it isn’t suspended inertly in a vacuum. Truth is resonant; it’s contingent upon a point of view.

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I recently got around to Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould (co-directed by Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont). It’s an exercise in blatant revisionism, passionate and intelligent, and I ate it up. This film isn’t precisely true, either; or is no truer than its antecedents. (I’m thinking especially of François Girard’s 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, which, in addition to being no closer to the facts than to the truth, was just plain awful.)

With this new one, you feel as if you’re seeing a character rather like Thomas Bernhard’s hilariously fictionalized prodigy, rumored and misremembered, in The Loser — “our Glenn, our Glenn Gould.” Apparently, he wasn’t nearly as crazy as we’d been told in the past: caroused like Bond; was great with kids and convivial with lovers. Even the teetering sawed-off piano stool — more like porch furniture — was not so much a talisman of lost childhood as a practical way of fully enabling the PIP-joint finger-tapping innovations of his teacher, the Chilean pianist and composer Alberto Guerrero. And so on.

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Gould’s “dark lady,” only recently revealed to be the painter Cornelia Foss, gets lots of screen time, too, unveiling a startling parallel reality to his media afterlife. Glenn was a regular guy, it seems — deferential, committed, affable, horny. Sure, she more or less admits, the last couple of years spiraled into a messy, harrowing send-up of Gilbert Pinfold. The pills were going down like vitamins, and the vitamins like Cheerios. He was gargling unctions and bathing in salves. Dozens of doctors were being consulted, each in the dark about the others. (By all accounts, Gould was about two contraindicated prescriptions away from nuclear fusion.) The famous summer beachwear — overcoats, mufflers, scarves, and arctic mittens — became, toward the end, an outfit mainly pulled on for watching Man from Uncle re-runs. Revisionism notwithstanding, the film makes no attempt to turn away from those cartoonishly eccentric images that are now so familiar. I was particularly intrigued by footage, entirely new to me, from the final months of his life — a recording session in which we see the pianist, virtually underneath his Yamaha CF II, twisted and bundled up like Fagan, eyeballing the score through what appears to be a pair of Swifty Lazar’s readers.
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