Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 19, 2014 8:42 am 
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A film that fell into Ethan Hqwke's lap turns out to be a master class in classical piano and living an integrated life

Actor, director, and writer Ethan Hawke's debut as a documentary filmmaker focuses on a classical pianist turned teacher, the preturnaturally calm and highly articulate 85-year-old Seymour Bernstein, who played piano as a little boy, and began teaching it at fifteen, then after a successful career of touring and playing as a classical pianist, in disaffection with the pressures and commercialism, retired at fifty to devote himself to teaching and composing. He has also poured his wisdom into two books, With Your Own Two Hands: Self-Discovery Through Music (1981), and Twenty Lessons in Keyboard Choreography (1991).

Hawke chose Bernstein as an exemplary man, one with balance in his life, and seeks to show this in his loving portrait. This film portrait lays out aspects of Bernstein's present and past life, his working methods, memories of studying piano with Clara Husserl, serving in the US Army during the Korean War; richly informative moments with piano students. Hawke even persuaded him to play a private concert, which he took very seriously, practicing for many hours in preparation. The film is meant as a tribute, but as Justin Chang put it in his admiring Telluride review for Variety, "happily sidesteps any vanity-project pitfalls." It does, because it is cannily edited.

Hawke's project grew out of meeting him at a private dinner party. He was struck by the older man's instant grasp of his career anxieties and painful stage fright, and getting to know him better, knew a film should be made about him. Bernstein, who had suffered from performance nerves himself, helped coach Hawke on how to deal with them and at the same time come to understand them as an inevitable part of the seriously committed performer's life. Seymour isn't very much in favor of the high-speed classical solo touring life. He thinks it warps people. Somewhat illogically, since Glenn Gould retired early from concertizing himself, he comments that Gould was a total neurotic -- but a genius of enormous technical skill. But he thinks it odd Gould is famous for Bach because when he hears Gould play Bach he hears Gould, not Bach (others would differ).

Most importantly, Seymour speaks for, and emerges as an example of, music as a part of an integrated emotional life.

While Hawke admits he had no desire to make a documentary, and this topic just fell into his lap, and while superficially it is much like many another New York music and arts film that might be shown on PBS, it's a classical piano fan's delight. Watching Seymour coach numerous students, and particularly doing a master class at NYU, one learns far more than usual about the art of piano -- the way Seymour coaches students to craft a musical line shows he is a splendid teacher. When he consents to play a recital for Ethan Hawke's LAByrinth Theater Company, it's given at the rotunda of Steinway Hall and we see Seymour chose the right piano. (This may recall a long-ago film about the young Gould doing the same thing.), and the film climaxes with excerpts of the recital, cunningly edited to show Seymour practicing for the performance and commenting in detail on several passages.

Reminiscences by Seymour fill in background about his studies with Sir Clifford Curzen (whose knighthood he may have helped bring about); his early life in a musicless home, with a father who did not understand his becoming a pianist; and moving recollections of his stint as a soldier (and performer) in the Korean War. Conversations with special friends like New York Times writer and pianist Michael Kimmelman help to dot the i's and cross the t's about Seymour's ideas about performing, music, and life. Justin Chang: "The great classical pianist ... is as graceful a speaker as he is a musician, and his voice rings out with wondrous depth and clarity."

The title is an unacknowledged reference to J.D. Salinger's late Glass family short story of the same name.

Seymour: An Introduction, 81 mins., debuted at Telluride last month, and showed shortly thereafter at Toronto. Sundance Selects acquired the US distribution rights. Screened for this review as part of the 52nd New York Film Festival, where it shows 27 Sept. 2014.

US theatrical release begins 13 March 2015 in NYC at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the IFC Center, and in LA.


Seymour: An Introduction is presented as part of the NYFF's accompanying "Spotlight on Documentary" sidebar series, which also includes Scorsese and David Tedeschi's The 50-Year Argument, about The New York Review of Books; recent MacArthur Foundation Award winner Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence (a sequel to his The Act of Killing); the Maysle brothers' Iris, about a fashion maven; and Frederick Wiseman’s first film about a museum, National Gallery. The NYFF is strong on documentaries this year, including additionally in its Main Slate both Nick Broomfeld's Tales of the Grim Sleeper; and, as a late addition, the world premiere of Laura Poitras' Citizenfour, an inside account of Edward Snowden's NSA spying revelations. Seymour: An Introduction holds its own very well among these titles.

(At the Q&A after the press screenin the film's subject, now 87, proved to be as calm, wise and articulate as he was on screen.)

(For my full coverage of the 2014 NYFF see also FILMLEAF.)

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