32 Thoughts About 32 Short Films


From The New York Times (May 1, 1994)

by Douglas Coupland

A number of American friends have noted a particular flavor they cannot quite identify in the new film "Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould." They wondered if it had something to do with its being Canadian. Herewith some thoughts on the matter.

  1. Growing up in Canada, we were forced in school to watch movies by the National Film Board of Canada, which helped make this film. Everyone in class groaned when N.F.B. shorts began. N.F.B. films were like industrial movies that only incidentally focused on human beings instead of zinc. Even to 10-year-olds, they seemed like cultural inoculation.
  2. The 60's and 70's were a sexy, happening time. It seemed that the Canadian esthetic, whatever that might be, was on the cusp of articulation. The N.F.B. was part of this.
  3. Norman McLaren was a pioneer Canadian animator whose experimental cartoons were endlessly shown to school children courtesy of the N.F.B. Some of his work appears in this movie.
  4. Don McKellar, the film's co-writer, is in his 30's and most certainly saw countless N.F.B. films as a child.
  5. A famous series of N.F.B. short films was called "Hinterland Who's Who." It had as its trademark the call of the loon, a sound that now evokes in many Canadians who watched this program a sense of primal patriotism infinitely greater than even the national anthem.
  6. Canada is a cold country; its relatively sparse humanity is separated by vast distances.
  7. Canada has more pay telephones per capita than any other country.
  8. Glenn Gould was a phone freak.
  9. The movie features rotary phones, which now seem oddly primitive.
  10. Gould died before the arrival of Touch-Tone dialing, voice mail, pagers and cordless phones. Irony!
  11. Gould's telephoning patterns had much in common with those of Howard Hughes. Both men would call anyone, anywhere, at any time of day or night.
  12. Back in the 1970's, Howard Hughes lived for a year or so in the Bayshore Inn hotel in Vancouver. Rumor had it that his assistants would rearrange the furniture and say, "You're in Puerto Vallarta now, Mr. Hughes," and he wouldn't know the difference.
  13. Where is Gould buried? I once visited Marshall McLuhan's grave, north of Toronto. Its tombstone, flush with the grass, read "The truth shall set you free" in the futuristic computer-style writing favored in the sexy 1960's.
  14. The movie features big, flat, boat-type cars - mattresses on wheels. - Glenn Gould liked Arrowroot cookies. And ketchup. After seeing the movie, audiences will find this sort of detail sticking in the mind long after other facts have vanished.
  15. Glenn Gould was left-handed.
  16. Pills he took: Valium, Trifluoperazine, Phenobarbital, Librax, Aldomet, Clonidine, Indocin, Hydrochlorothiazide, Fiorinal, Phenylbutazone, Gravol and Allopurinol.
  17. Not all the music in the film is classical. One of the short segments, set in a diner, uses "Downtown" by Petula Clark.
  18. The film captures certain flavors of the Canadian architectural landscape high modernist architecture refracted through the Ontario lens, which equates ornament with sin; Lake Superior motels with knotty pine walls.
  19. When I was 22, I bought a Glenn Gould cassette, knowing nothing of Gould's tendency to hum during recordings. I thought there was a defect in the tape and tried to return it.
  20. Gould was freaked out about turning 49 because the digits added up to 13.
  21. He died of a stroke in 1982 at the age of 50.
  22. He seems to have been surrounded by reams and reams of manuscripts and books - engulfed by information.
  23. Some cities visited by him while he toured: Salzburg, Stockholm, Berlin, Wiesbaden, Florence, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem. His final performance was in Los Angeles, in 1964.
  24. The documentary film may well be Canada's one true art form.
  25. Yehudi Menuhin says of Gould and of Gould's decision to stop performing live: "I think that - like all people who try to rationalize their position, who do what they want at any cost and then seek some sort of universal justification - he fell into a trap. A trap where he dwelt a little too much on the morality of his decision."
  26. Gould was obsessed with the Arctic and dreamed of spending an entire winter above the Arctic Circle.
  27. The film reflects Gould's obsession with solitude - with the lone figure finding solace in an empty landscape. Much of the Canadian identity seems to stem from having to define empirically the essence of self inside a sparse landscape.
  28. The movie features a few shots of Gould brooding his way across a frozen lake, which do, only briefly, make one pine for a fast-forward button. But isn't that what the Canadian winter is all about?
  29. From a very early age, Gould began, Michael Jackson-like, wearing fingerless gloves.
  30. Used in the movie: NASA stock; moving X-rays, early 60's black-and-white news stock; a page from Gould's personal diary; interviews with subtitles; animation; still photographs of pills.
  31. From the end of the movie: "In the fall of 1977, the U.S. Government sent two ships, Voyager 1 and 2, into space. . . . A variety of messages were placed on board that would be capable of communicating the existence of an intelligent creature living on a planet called Earth. Among these was included a short prelude by Johann Sebastian Bach, as performed by Glenn Gould. Voyagers 1 and 2 left our solar system, respectively, in 1987 and 1989.
  32. "Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould," strangely, does capture the feeling of being Canadian.