The New York Film Festival begins this Friday and Glenn continues our pre-fest coverage by looking at 'Seymour: An Introduction'.
It’s curious that Ethan Hawke has appeared on screen this year with Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and now returns behind the camera (after Chelsea Walls and The Hottest State) to direct Seymour: An Introduction. Curious because both films get their life-source from demographics at opposite ends of the age spectrum that are both treated somewhat like lepers of cinema. Teenage boys in Boyhood and kindly old senior citizens aren’t usually treated with such respect and humility as these two Hawke projects. I have not seen Hawke's two previous directorial efforts, but this first foray into documentary is a nice step for this Hollywood stay who has clearly wrestled with being an artist in an industry that doesn't necessary encourage it.
Having said that, this “introduction” to the 86-year-old (I hope I am remembering the age correctly as information about it appears non-existent online) suffers from, perhaps, too much of a need to be charming, rarely digging deep enough into this man’s life to eke out a portrait of lasting relevance. Seymour: An Introduction is nice and lovely and 80 minutes spent with delightful company, but while Hawke flirts with finding something deeper within the renowned pianist’s history to delve into – a brief snipped mentions he has lived alone in the same apartment for 57 years; he begins to tear up at recalling his days performing for troops in Korea – they are shortlived.
Hawke instead prefers to keep his film predominantly observational to his life as it stands today. He tutors students of various ages, performs open-to-the-public masterclasses (which are the film’s highlights), goes for tea at Tipsy Parson café on 9th Avenue, and extols wisdom with bonmots such as “without craft there is no artistry” and “if you feel inadequate as a musician, then you’ll feel inadequate as a person" that frequently verge on the wise old crackpot scale. His observations about classical music, particularly as it pertains to one’s own personality including the masculinity of Pollock, Brando and Beethoven, are enlightening. So, too, are the occasional memory lane throwbacks to other famed pianists like Glenn Gould and Sir Clifford Curzon.
Hawke does appear on screen, briefly early on and then again towards the end where he introduces Bernstein’s return to public performance (he had given it up many decades ago after a well-reviewed performance at Alice Tully Hall nearly crippled him with nerves and doubt about the industry’s integrity) to a small group of pupils and recognizable faces (Mark Ruffalo can be seen in the crowd, but don’t blink or you’ll miss it). In another way that it plays as an opposite of Boyhood, Seymour: An Introduction settles for telling the story of one man rather than hoping to tell a story of more wider-reaching grasp. I think the film certainly could have benefited perhaps from more exploration of the Upper West Side's role in the forming of these prodigal talents as well more insight into Bernstein's place amongst modern musicians from people who aren't his friends or students. I just wish the film had a bit more meat on its bones to make it a more memorable introduction. B-