Seymour: An Introduction [2014)

Big gigantic balls.

It took Ethan Hawke.

Whom I formerly mistook for a hack.

To not even dabble in détournement.

But rather.

Straight-up.

Call it.

Seymour:  An Introduction

After Salinger.

But let me dispel all uncertainly early on.

This film, directed by Ethan Hawke, is a masterpiece.

The premise seemed interesting.

On Netflix.

“This should,” I thought, “be an easy one to jettison after a few painful minutes of shabby mise-en-scène…[after ignoring it on my ‘list’ for quite some time]”

And though there is no Liszt (ha!), Ethan Hawke tells one of the most touching stories I’ve ever seen.

Yes, that is the correct verbiage.

In the synesthesia of cinema.

It is the story of Seymour Bernstein (and not, as the title might lead one to believe, that of Seymour Glass).

Seymour did not become the supernova which his fellow Bernstein (Leonard) became.

No, Seymour Bernstein stepped away from the stage early.

As in, curtailed his career.

As a performer.

A pianist.

[but always a son–a man]

And so what makes Ethan Hawke’s film particularly special for me is the synergy created from two colliding ideas of great power:  music and anxiety.

Ah, to perform…

It’s hard (really, very fucking hard) for me to recall the good times which make me sad.

Those would be my four short years as a professional music performer.

[three of which coincided with a parallel mini-career as a studio (recording) musician]

Why did I step away?

To paraphrase Bogart in The Big Sleep, I must rank pretty high on insubordination.

I’m a rebel.

And though I pray that I never follow in the darker footsteps of Phil Spector, I was very much in what one would term popular or pop music.

But it wasn’t from a lack of training.

My bachelor’s degree, from an esteemed institution, is almost exclusively due to courses in Western classical music.

Though I am but an amateur pianist compared to Mr. Bernstein, I have a deep appreciation for what he is doing all throughout this film.

As a trained music theorist (my specialization).

And a trained composer (the activity to which I dedicated the bulk of my undergraduate hours).

But there is something more.

Seymour:  An Introduction is very much about hard work.

About craft.

What I’m doing right now.

What you are reading.

It is my craft.

Now.

Music has flown…like a fleeting bird.

And I have had to transpose my urge to create from “EveryGoodBoyDoesFine” by way of copious vicissitudes to “PleaseExcuseMyDearAuntSally” and other far-afield mnemonic devices.

Yes, dear friends…I identify with Ethan Hawke’s struggle.

And it is painful to watch him.

But he has redeemed himself with this film.

Through great doubt we travel…

What the fuck am I doing in business school?

Does my acting mean anything whatsoever to ME anymore?

To weave it, my problems were/are different than those of Mr. Hawke.

He is standing on the stage…[places, everyone]…on the X where I wish I was.

Directing a film.

You need a producer.

An “executive” producer.

You need a law firm.

Legal counsel.

[for all those archival clips you want to interpolate]

Yes…there is a long list of credited individuals at the culmination of Seymour:  An Introduction.

It doesn’t just say “Ethan Hawke”.

Those are the realities of film.

Godard has illustrated it as a process of check-writing.

$50 here.  [more like]  $3,000 here.

And again.  And again.

But it is obvious this was a project of love for Ethan Hawke.

And it worked.

Mr. Bernstein is 89 and still (apparently) teaches at NYU.

And what a gifted soul!

Ah…

This documentary reminded me of so many beautiful, important things!

It all moves too fast…

The pictures with Nadia Boulanger…

But Korea sticks.

At the front lines.

As jaw-dropping as Messiaen in his prison camp.

But let me speak to the choir now…

Friends of Deutsche Grammophon et al..

It’s important.

That extra dot.

To point out.

No pun intended.

A service.

PRACTICE in front of your audience (Warhol advised).

Dear Messrs,

[and scholarly, epicurean (?) womenfolk]

We have, in these minutes, footage of the great Glenn Gould.

We learn the chair.

How low.

Carry out folded.

Like a shabby parcel of manuscripts.

But Mr. Bernstein gives us the cinderblocks.

And while it is scary (Glenn Gould) in its proficiency.

The ear of God.

We get an even greater surprise.

Yes, most startling.

Clifford Curzon.

And the passion of a boy from Islington.

Precision.

Snap!

Unfurling arpeggios effortlessly.

While the baritone fingers surface the melody.

Just breathing above the water’s surface.

Curzon.

Those glasses.

We fall in love.

1977.

Year after I was born.

By 17 days.

Seymour Bernstein’s eight-year career was over.

As a public performer.

Debuting with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (!) a Brazilian piano concerto in world premiere (the 2nd by Villa-Lobos).

1969-1977

Double my career 🙂

[in more ways than one, I’m sure]

But as an astute student in the film observes, it was many thousands of hours (of practice and other dedicatory acts) to get to that point.

Mr. Bernstein didn’t sit down with the CSO and sightread the Villa-Lobos concerto.

It wasn’t his first time playing.

And so it comes back to work.

And anxiety.

& music.

Seymour Bernstein:  God bless you for knowing the quadrivium.

That MUSIC was one of the four higher liberal arts.

For the ancient Greeks.

Along with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy.

What isn’t mentioned is that in which I am currently dabbling.

[dabbling my ass off]

The trivium.

Those “lower” three of the liberal arts.

Grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

And the liberal arts…in opposition to the practical arts.

[the latter being such as medicine…or architecture]

{Footnotes to be provided when hell freezes over}

And so I heartily recommend you watch this documentary.

Appreciate the importance of music.

See Abraham ready to sacrifice Isaac.

[he will laugh!]

Because God gives back.

Even though Mr. Bernstein doesn’t believe.

It makes no difference to me.

I am but human.

And I have a right.

To believe.

In God.

In music.

He just disappeared.

One last concert.

At the YMCA.

Knowing when to end.

When the notes fade.

And if on a good piano,

they almost seem to swell first.

As if by magic…

-PD

Election [1999)

Life really sucks sometimes.

You try to do the right thing.

You try to do a good thing.

And you mess up somehow.

Films, then, are a great comfort when they can show us lives more fucked up than our own.

I must say early on:  this is a great film!

A great, great film!

Maybe I heard about it long ago.

In one ear and out the other.

And what brought me to visit this piece of cinema at this particular time?

That is a long, complex story which (mercifully) pales in comparison to the misadventures presented in Election.

Alexander Payne turned in a masterpiece here.

He had approximately the resources which a Nicholas Ray would have had.

And, presumably, the same pressures to somehow connect with teen audiences.

But make no mistake (as our woeful president is so wont to repeat):  Election is an extremely smart film.

Matthew Broderick is stellar as high school teacher Jim McAllister.

Reese Witherspoon is really damned good in this flick as well.

It’s a comedy, but there are tears.

There are a couple of actors who really bring this one home with their small roles.

Mark Harelik is essential to the story.

He plays a poor, pathetic bastard who’s hopelessly clueless.  I can relate.

Dave Novotny (Harelik) really sets things in motion.

Truth be told, all of the characters in this film make poor choices.

That’s what makes it real.

It’s hard to judge some of these people.  Any of these people.  All of them.

That’s what director Payne makes so masterfully clear.

What’s the difference between ethics and morals?

The first to answer might have the least idea.

Election is very much a film about America.

Payne uses a trite camera trick to express something truly sublime.

Dolly up.  Way up.  Crane shot.  God perspective.  Hearing the selfish prayers of a motley bunch.

Most lovable is Jessica Campbell.  She is the lesbian rebel whose short-lived student government campaign parallels that of Monty Brewster’s “None of the Above” run in Brewster’s Millions (1985).

Campbell’s character Tammy has a soul.  She is the gem of this picture.

But we see so much true soul from Matthew Broderick as well (and true acting talent).

In case you were wondering, only Chris Klein’s prayer rings true.  It’s hilarious.  But it has heart.

Klein’s initial campaign speech is a coup of non-acting.  Frankly brilliant!

And, as I intimated earlier, even Witherspoon has soul.

Her character might be ostensibly soulless, but it’s there.

Sitting on the school bus.  And crying before a Valium and milk.

Ms. Witherspoon is brilliant as the villain.

But she’s only the villain because the story is told from the perspective of Broderick’s character (more or less).

The narrative voiceover must have really been en vogue in 1999 (the same year as the whisper-happy American Beauty).

And though these films be seemingly ignorant of the master of the medium (whisper king Jean-Luc Godard), they are still cinema.

I would venture to guess that Election is the better of the two films (or at least the one most able to handle the scrutiny of accolades).

Which is to say, Election might not be a terribly well-known film, but it deserves to be widely seen and appreciated.

 

-PD