Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould
Kings of Pastry
First Run Features
The American government made a documentary about the Nuremberg trial in 1945 - 1946 that was shown in Germany in 1948. It is only lately being shown in the United States. Reasons for the delay are obscure: one surmise is that relations with the Soviet Union quickly cooled and our government didn’t want to push a film that had the Soviets sitting alongside us in a tribunal. At any rate, Nuremberg:
The work itself had to be rebuilt: over the years mysterious things had happened to the original negative and sound elements. Carefully, Sandra Schulberg (daughter of Stuart Schulberg, the original director) and Josh Waletzky found the pieces and assembled an eighty-minute film. No more than half of it is actually film of the trial. The original team was permitted to shoot only twenty-five hours of footage: what Schulberg and Waletzky found provided less than enough for feature length. The rest of the picture is buttressed and amplified with clips of war action and Hitlerian diplomacy. Some of these clips may have been included in the 1946 original, because they were used as evidence during the trial.
The cinematography is workaday black and white, and the sound-track of this restoration is not always in sync. But the film techniques are as good as they could be. The picture starts with Justice Robert H. Jackson’s opening address to the very large and crowded courtroom. Then come about twenty minutes of war film that summarize the reasons for the trial—the crimes against humanity. Then we get glimpses of the trial itself—charges, questions and answers, defenses. (Usual defense: the accused was busy with his own departmental work and didn’t know what was going on elsewhere.) Then come the summations by the American, Soviet, British, and French prosecutors. Naturally, all these sections are abridged. Then come the sentences, unabridged, read by a British judge. Three of the twenty-two defendants were acquitted. Eight were imprisoned, and eleven were sentenced to death. One of them, Göring, dispatched himself before execution with cyanide.
The most chilling of the trial material is not the various lawyers’ talks or even the questionings. The crux is in the faces of the defendants, two rows of them in the dock—Göring, Speer, Streicher, von Ribbentrop, and so on—while the accusations are being read and after. Their expressions? Nil. They had evidently decided as a group to remain stony-faced, bearing out their basic position that they were patriots and military men serving their country in wartime, now being tried for their loyalty by the enemy that had conquered them. Not a twitch in those faces.
Their behavior brought back to this viewer memories of discussion about the very idea of the trial that began early. Can soldiers be tried for obeying orders? Wasn’t the whole proceeding simply an expansion of the old Yankee gag: “Give the man a fair trial, then hang him?” Nonetheless, acknowledging the immense legal complexities of the trial, some of us were plagued by a bitterness—about Kaiser Wilhelm II. At the end of World War I, the Kaiser abdicated and fled to Holland, where he purchased a small castle. The American press felt that it needed to visit him occasionally (he died in 1941) and print a photo. So from time to time we were treated to a picture of the Kaiser, a man who had been involved in the slaughter of millions, tending his roses or healthfully chopping wood. We never wanted to see photos of Streicher tending his roses.
This reconstituted film puts the complicated trial before us again expressly to inveigh against aggressive war. This is the lesson of the subtitle, which was part of the original. It was doubtless a bit less ironic in 1946.
Back to civilization with Glenn Gould. He still lives. Literally, he died in 1982 at age fifty. Like many other musicians, his performances—in his case, fabulous imperial piano—are still there to exalt us. But unlike most of his fellows, he also survives as a person—in film. In 1993 François Girard made a lovely picture called Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, a gallery of improvisations about some facts and moods and interests in the pianist’s life. Now comes a straight documentary, Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, by Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont.
Why? The reason, stated in the title, is perennial. Essentially, this is another search for an explanation of genius. When talent occurs, we can accept it, because there is so much of it; but genius is unsettling. We want to know why, how. Family background is no clue: many geniuses came from humdrum families. Early recognition sometimes occurs, sometimes not. As an answer to the basic question, this new film is little aid: we still don’t understand why this gangly youth from an average
But they do paint a portrait of the man and his peculiarities. The directors have found film of Gould at various ages and have done recent interviews with people who knew him, and at least we get some acquaintance with him. He was a peculiar fellow: he ranged from being a commonplace regular guy, deliberately yet naturally so, to the tempestuous virtuoso that great artists often are. One sidewise example: in a now-historical incident, Leonard Bernstein explained to an audience before a Philharmonic concert that the Brahms concerto interpretation they were about to hear was Gould’s interpretation, not his.
We get generous portions of Gould’s playing, though of course not enough, and often we hear his piano tinkling in the background of conversations (understandable as a device, though a constant tease). We never see him on stage, but we hear a considerable amount about how he disliked appearing in concert. He began to feel, apparently, that performing in public was “performing” in public. He frequently canceled appearances unexpectedly. After twenty years of concertizing he completely quit in 1964, and for his last eighteen years he did all his public playing on recordings and on radio.
His private life had its own anomaly. He and a married woman fell in love: she eventually moved in with him, but brought her children with her and kept her ties to her husband. For a considerable time it was a threesome with children. To increase the uniqueness, one of the children, now an adult man, talks of those trio days with tenderness.
At the time Gould’s decision to quit the stage was thought to be Gouldian eccentricity in extremis. He may or may not have had a vision of the electronic future, but we who are entering the new digital cosmos can now think that perhaps he was a pioneer.
‘The cream puff is something very basic.” A film with that comment as its credo is sure to be engrossing. Kings of Pastry proves the point.
This is a documentary about a competition that is held every four years in France. A group of first-rank pastry chefs—during the year the film was made, there were sixteen—compete for three days under the eyes of masters, preparing petits fours and tarts and lollipops and wedding cakes. At the finish the judges award collars to some of them. A collar puts a chef among the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF)—the best French craftsmen. This baking contest arouses an interest among some French people that may be exceeded only by the World Cup.
The famed American documentarians D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (husband and wife) have brought a sense of that fervor and some insight into the personal elements involved to their very skillful film. Their first good idea was to find a French pastry chef in America—Jacquy Pfeiffer, who teaches in Chicago—and follow him as cicerone when he returns, first to his native Alsace, where he practices, then to the competition. He explains in English as he goes, and he soon readjusts our standards of seriousness.
Brushing aside facile notions of French frivolity, we begin to wonder why it is more serious to see who can run a hundred yards fastest than to see who can make the best cream puffs. Skills are certainly at least as exigent for the chefs as for the runners, and when the contest is over, there is evidence to certify victory.
No women compete—at least not this year—but then, as I recall, Michelin is weak in female chefs of any sort. Present, however, are devoted wives who support and encourage their husbands as might the wives of race car drivers. The strain on the chefs is great. All are highly experienced, of course, some of them from famous restaurants, but afterward one of them, who has not won a collar, says that he is drained, exhausted: he could not go through this again.
Accidents can be providential for documentary makers, and Pennebaker and Hegedus benefit from one. On the last day each of the chefs has to fill a table of his own with the results of his trial, after which the judges will inspect visually, then taste. The camera happens to be focused on a chef who is lifting his complicated sugar sculpture onto his wedding cake when it suddenly collapses. His reaction and the warmth of his fellows help to steep the picture in our sympathy as well as excitement. And of course we are also steeped in jealousy of the judges, who, in a little while, will do the tasting of all those tables.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This piece ran in the October 14, 2010, issue of the magazine.