TECHNICAL MASTERY: Reviews of Genius Within: the Inner Life of Glenn Gold and Enter the Void

Genius Within: the Inner Life of Glenn Gould, the new documentary directed by Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont (for some reason, IMDB doesn’t list a writer), about legendary pianist Glenn Gould, is told in a very straightforward way. So straightforward, that at times I felt like I was more attending a lecture than experiencing a movie. Genuis Within… has received rave reviews, but I and my friend Beriau, who I saw it with, were left a little cold. We felt we had gotten a lot of information about the famed pianist, but left not feeling like we really found out all that much about him; I mean, the real him, the inside him. The film is filled with actual visual recordings of Gould, but after it was all over, I felt that nothing really quite said Glenn Gould as much as a scene from an earlier film, Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould, in which a scene was staged and a fictional actor went to a phone booth in the middle of the night, during winter, and called a friend for no other reason than to talk; something the friend said was just something you accepted if you were going to be friends with this genius. The most interesting aspects of his life in the Genius Within… version are the early years, especially the information about a piano technique he was taught that he took not just to heart, but improved upon and made the center of his method of playing. And when one does hear Gould, it’s astounding at how every single note seems to come through with breathtaking clarity. But as the film progressed, things got a tad hazy. We’re told he didn’t want to invite his parents to his best friend’s wedding, but we’re not told why. We’re told that anti-depressants and other medications had a negative effect on him, but these effects aren’t described. We’re told he had strange eccentricities, but the home movie excerpts we’re shown don’t make him seem that odd (there’s one strange bit where his lover of a few years describes how after a talk Gould went walking on the beach wearing, as eccentrically usual, his coat and gloves in spite of the heat; but the excerpt we’re shown shows him walking down a beach in winter, which isn’t quite so odd). There’s also some talk about Gould’s radio show, but I never quite understood it; it seemed a little vague. It’s not that I didn’t like the picture. But toward the end, I was growing a bit lethargic at all the information I was being given. It did what it set out to do, that’s clear enough, but I guess I wanted to just a bit more.

Enter the Void is the new film by enfant terrible, Gaspar Noe, who gave us the controversial Irreversible, the movie known for people walking out due to a graphic rape scene and a man’s face being smashed in by a fire extinguisher. The screenplay, by Noe and Lucile Hadzihalilovic, is based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, one of the more unusual sources for a story, perhaps only equaling John Cameron Mitchell’s adaption of Hedwig and the Angry Inch from one of Aristotle’s dialogues. In Enter the Void, a drug dealer is shot by the police, leaves his body and travels Tokyo witnessing various situations involving his friends, while also having flashbacks to his younger years, in the end entering a sperm at the moment of consummation so that he can be reincarnated. Gaspar Noe is ambitious in his use of technique. In Irreversible, he told his story in reverse chronological order divided into a series of scenes, each made up of one long shot that was as long as a reel of film. Here, Noe combines the point of view technique used by Robert Montgomery in his film noir The Lady in the Lake, in which everything is seen as the lead character sees it, the hero himself never appearing unless a mirror is present (the same idea was also used in parts of the films Dark Passage and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). Noe combines this approach with the long shot style Alfred Hitchcock used in Rope, in which the camera never cuts until it focuses on a solid black object so the audience theoretically can’t tell there’s been an edit with the whole film looking as if it’s one long shot. Add to that a style that reminded me of the time I was in college in which film groups would show movies that would especially appeal to people who had partaken of mind altering substances before attending (like Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here), and you have a lot going on. One thing in Noe’s favor is that he’s not as slavish to the POV technique as Montgomery was; Montgomery used it all the way through the film, which sounds great and innovative, until you actually see it whereupon it quickly becomes tiresome and clunky and is never as convincing as you think it might be. Noe really only uses this idea for about a third of the movie; after that, it all becomes an out of body experience, which, though the action is still seen strictly speaking from the hero’s point of view, it no longer seems like it, instead feeling much closer to a camera’s usual omniscient viewpoint. At the same time, Noe does take it all a step further and actually has the character blinking. He also takes the Hitchcock technique further by making the editing seamless with almost no hesitation or pausing on the camera’s part (at times, this is extremely dazzling as the hero flies over Tokyo, entering and exiting buildings, people, an airplane, and finally that uterus where we watch a penis thrusting and having an orgasm). But as impressive as the film is at times, it quickly loses steam as the technique takes over and become more important than the story telling. The issue for me is that the plot really isn’t that complicated; in fact, it’s fairly straight forward. But in spite of that, it takes Noe two hours and forty three minutes to tell it and the story line really can’t sustain it. The length is due to the above mentioned stylistic flourishes, which are interesting at first, but also can’t be sustained in and of themselves for the more than two hours running time. Add to that an actor in the lead, newcomer Nathaniel Brown, who says every line with a flat, deadly dullness, and the whole thing finally collapses under its own stylistic weight. I’m also not sure what to make of the suggested incestuous feelings the hero has for his sister, to the extent that it’s her uterus he enters and her baby he reincarnates as; I’m not sure, because it seems to be the only aspect of the film Noe seems to not fully commit to (with the frankness of the rest of the film, one wonders what held him back). In the end, I suspect this could have been a fascinating and more emotionally involving experience if it had clocked in under the two hour mark. And one has to admit the ambition and success of much of the technical aspects of the film; it is an incredibly impressive achievement at times. But not as engaging as I needed it to be.

So tell me what you think.

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