It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
The title of the new documentary directed by and featuring Ethan Hawke provides a vague indication of the work’s eventual assets and liabilities. On one level, the title is straightforward: the movie does introduce viewers to Seymour Bernstein, a classical pianist in his 80s who, at the midpoint of his life, gave up public performances and became a teacher of piano instead. Then there’s the allusion to J.D. Salinger’s novella, an account of the precocious genius of the Glass family, by now something of an American literary legend. Although the evocation of Salinger and his creation evokes intriguing associations of reclusiveness and talent and all that, in the end there’s not much here to do with Salinger or his character: the title plays on a coincidence, and is in a sense a bit cute and/or pretentious (my own preferred term is “know-somethingish”).
Hawke might have more appropriately called his short feature “Seymour: An Interrogation,” because while the film lays out Bernstein’s life story and his perceptions on art, and explores his talent, Hawke makes clear from the outset that he chose Bernstein as a subject (the two met when seated next to each other at a dinner party) in order to explore questions hyphenate Hawke (the “Boyhood” and “Training Day” co-star has accrued not just several directorial credits but is a published author as well) has about his own artistic practice. “I didn’t know what was authentic,” Hawke admits of his own work in an early conversation with Bernstein. He apparently sees something very authentic in his subject.
In limning the world of classical music during the period in which Bernstein practiced, then abandoned, performance, Hawke gives viewers the picture of a very different New York City than exists today: a Manhattan, or at least a pocket of Manhattan, both aesthetically refined and at least mildly affluent. In a café, Bernstein reminisces with an adult former student who neglected his lessons to the extent that he became “incorrigible;” this well-heeled fellow is Michael Kimmelman, now an art critic for “The New York Times.”
Throughout the picture, Bernstein interacts with genteel folk who quietly deplore what they see as the American perception of art and art-making—“they want the ‘Flashdance’ fallacy,” one sighs, alluding to a talent that flies out of a bottle like a genie with no craft or labor involved. In between these exchanges, Bernstein works with young students, counting out measures, contemplating accents, working out the problem of how to get one’s pinkie to just this particular distant piano key in time to make the musical phrase coherent. Like Jody Lee Lipes’ recent documentary “Ballet 422,” Hawke’s movie patiently demonstrates that Art Needs Work. But it also needs philosophy, and Hawke, while never so louche as to just up and ask the reason Bernstein gave up the limelight to impart his wisdom to others instead, prods the ways Bernstein’s struggles to be a great performer abraded his desire to be a decent human being.
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