Seymour Bernstein’s decision to walk away from his professional career as a concert pianist at age 50 and devote himself to teaching makes him both a complete unknown to modern audiences and a possible source of inspiration for anyone struggling with the pursuit of art-for-the-right-reasons. So he needs an introduction, but this new documentary from Ethan Hawke, one such artist grappling with art, fame and material reward, largely avoids taking the kind of biographical form its title suggests. On the one hand, Bernstein has a quietly dominant personality, always wresting the narrative into the shape of one of his own master classes, while on the other, he’s a bit of an enigma, never revealing much of himself that can’t be put in musical terms. But he comes into view through a series of small, sublime moments, as when, during a conversation, the scholar Andrew Harvey declares, “I heard everything in creation singing ecstatically in the name of God,” and Bernstein, with no skepticism, only awe, replies, “You heard that?” It’s exactly the kind of grand statement Bernstein might make himself, except he’d likely not evoke God, as he sees no need for religion in a world that contains music.
Director: Ethan Hawke
Producers: Ryan Hawke, Greg Loser, Heather Smith
Cinematographer: Ramsey Fendall
Editor: Anna Gustavi
Cast: Seymour Bernstein, Jiyang Chen, Ethan Hawke, Juniko Ichikawa, Marcus Ostermiller
Premiere: September 10, 2014 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: March 13, 2015
US Distributor: Sundance Selects
At certain points in the film Bernstein’s maxims about music and harmony (“music and life will start to interact in a never-ending cycle of fulfillment,” etc.), calmly delivered, start to fly with such velocity that an outside force is needed to put them to work, to lend concrete meaning to a surfeit of inspired lines. This is when Hawke’s insertions of himself into his own film are most welcome, not evidence of a vanity project but an essential infusion of structure. And without Hawke there would’ve been no film, it seems, as there would’ve been no one to intrude on Bernstein’s retreat from the spotlight. The two met at a dinner party and, from Hawke’s telling of it, he immediately felt the presence of a mentor, someone to whom he could confess his stage fright and from whom he could gain insight on his professional anxiety. Bernstein, who found his creative identity as a teacher and who considers a major career “unhealthy,” couldn’t be a more obvious foil for a movie star, but he also nicely complements the questioning nature of Hawke, who’s always had an earnest, lightly introverted aspect to his persona. None of his dilemmas are resolved within the film, but it makes from his relationship with Bernstein a pleasing sketch, and suggests mentorship as an ongoing process.
These on-screen dialogues are ultimately a minor feature of the film, and Hawke’s intrusions as a director are even fewer. He mostly guides the material with a subtle hand, layering performance and narration and cutting between private and public spaces with invisible skill, but he does make a few connections through editing that aren’t otherwise evident in the material. As Bernstein speaks of the feeling of ecstasy, the film cuts to footage from the height of Beatlemania, silenced, John Lennon on stage and enraptured teenagers in the audience, Bernstein’s words lending obvious significance to the images. It’s a simple gesture that speaks with astonishing force and doesn’t really need elaboration, but later the film goes wider, with a montage of ecstatic musical performance, across time and cultures, set to the sounds of Bernstein’s climactic recital for a private audience. It’s an interesting bit of editorializing that somewhat contradicts or disrespects a conversation Bernstein has earlier in the film about audiences being more interested in the raw, spontaneous display of talent and genius than in the hard work that goes into making music and perfecting technique. Too many of the images emphasize the former. Why not a montage of artists engaged in those aspects of music that are most painstaking and unseen? It’s fun to imagine, but poses problems of visualization, and anyway the film is here more interested in the end products of hard work—release, harmony—and in further broadening the significance of Bernstein’s art and words. Through much of the film there’s little suggestion that his reflections apply to anything but classical music, but Hawke’s juxtapositions and nods to universality read as sincere and accurate, not as a pandering hook for the non-classical audience.
To the extent that Seymour: An Introduction looks beyond the way Bernstein presents himself and his ideas and attempts to serve as biography, it reveals a solitary man for whom life and art have merged so completely as to become indistinguishable. He mentions having lived in the same studio apartment for 57 years, and when he turns to childhood and speaks of his father’s dismissive remarks about having “three daughters and a pianist,” Seymour not meeting his definition of a son, Bernstein seems on the verge of more specific revelation, but doesn’t carry it any further. When he speaks of femininity, it’s in terms of Beethoven, whose subduing of the feminine in his music Bernstein laments. And when he’s speaking in well-earned maxims, they never come across as distancing devices. They truly speak for him, and don’t limit his imaginative use of language. Consider a haunting passage, not absent Bernstein’s customary serenity, in which he gets to the root of his need for solitude, identifying a “translucent dome within myself,” outside of which are the ravens, his detractors, his father among them. He’s among the most eloquent musicians ever put on film. Hawke has lucked into a great subject, and knows it, bringing to bear considerable sensitivity and skill in his presentation.