Have you ever noticed how the bad guys in generic action movies tend to listen to classical music? For an old, goateed sociopath on the verge of launching nukes at Washington or slaughtering innocents for his own financial gain, there’s nothing better than some Chopin or Bach to calm the nerves. Usually it’s on an exquisite antique turntable, which shows he’s a Jack White-level connoisseur. Sometimes he even leans his head back and conducts with his fingers. He’s really into this stuff.
The idea (besides how everyone needs to stop ripping off Die Hard) is that art, specifically high art, doesn’t make people better. Reading Milton won’t inspire you to join the Peace Corps. Relating to Pagliacci only makes you an unstable wreck of humanity. And if you hear someone humming Beethoven’s fifth, don’t turn your back on them for a second. These people only care about aesthetics because they’re rich, elitist, friendless, or haven’t been laid recently. Even Hitler had decent taste in music.
Heroes, conversely, can be identified by simple clothing and a taste for classic rock and draft beer.
Seymour: an Introduction presents a fairly unpopular thesis, at least in Movieland: making and appreciating great art is good for the soul. Ethan Hawke’s documentary features a scene in which a demanding musical professor asks a student to play a piece, then stops them over and over again after the first few bars. It’s not all that different from the famous drumming scene in Whiplash. However, the soft-spoken Seymour Bernstein couldn’t be more different from J.K. Simmons’ abusive band conductor. He even asks his student’s permission before touching her stomach to demonstrate proper breathing techniques.
Bernstein was a world class pianist for many years before his stage fright inspired him to give up concerts and teach. Today he is seen living alone in a small one bedroom apartment, spending leisurely afternoons with friends and colleagues, and playing on his home piano for no audience at all (save, now, the one sitting in the theater). In a world that idolizes ambition, digital connectivity, and YOLO-esque hedonism, he could not be less hip.
The film also couldn’t be less hip. It doesn’t have the showy visual flourishes of an Errol Morris doc or any attention-grabbing narrative gimmicks. It’s comprised mostly of talking heads and long musical interludes. It’s a simple document of a life well-lived. Bernstein is fascinating one on one in small rooms, but you don’t get the impression that he would stand out at a party. He has a boyish sensitivity, his voice never rising above a gentle whisper. He describes a scene from his childhood where his mother found him crying about the beauty of a piece by Schubert.
Hawke’s speeches directly to the camera about “authenticity” and “the meaning of it all” can get a little grating. “I think a lot of people spend their lives not trying to play better but trying to gain more things,” he says like a director who knows exactly what he wants said in front of the camera.
However, he chose his subject well. Bernstein phrases the sentiment more poetically: “Most people don’t tap the God within.”
And you do get a sense that the man isn’t speaking from some misanthropic mass judgment. He genuinely seems more at peace with himself and the world than most people on the street, and he brings that sensitivity and care everywhere he goes. The judgment is notably missing. He never raises his voice when speaking to his students. Sometimes he appears hurt, like when he describes the way his father used to say, “I have two daughters and a pianist,” but he’s never angry.
There’s not exactly a story to speak of; just a collection of thoughts and anecdotes structured around the protagonist’s arresting musical performances. In reference to his stage fright, Bernstein tells a story about actress Sarah Bernhardt. A young actress asked for Bernhardt’s autograph and noticed that her hands were trembling. She said, “Madam, I don’t mean to be presumptuous but I see that you’re nervous. Why is it that I never get nervous when I have to act?”
Bernhardt’s response: “Oh my poor dear. You will get nervous when you learn how to act.”
It’s such a simple, direct parable. The moral: if people knew everything that was possible in life, they would be more nervous about how they spent it. It’s the sweetness and conviction with which it’s delivered that really sell it. Cynics might balk at statements like, “Music and life interact. Through its language we become one with the stars.”
The funny thing about quotes is that it matters who said them. What would be horribly pretentious coming from a random stranger is inspiring when spoken by Bernstein, who seems open and knowable from the moment we first see him. When he speaks about the pieces he is playing, his words come alive in the music itself. His thoughts on life resonate the same way. It’s also kind of funny when two of his students argue about occurrences of B flat in outer space.
Part of me wishes there was a flashier, more dynamic ways to communicate these ideas to an audience. It’s only screening this week is in Edina, where Landmark sends all the other boring old white people movies. Even the film’s title evokes the image of a dry college lecture. But my generation is definitely searching for authenticity, and in a way this movie makes a solid mentor available to the masses. I suppose the students have to be interested before they can learn.
To most people art is a way to kill time or convince other people to think the way they do. There’s nothing wrong with that exactly. People are tired and have so many responsibilities outside of taking care of their own emotional wellbeing. Still, I think in a way we’ve invented this unhelpfully pragmatic idea that if art is demanding or doesn’t have an obvious message, it’s worthless.
For Bernstein however it is a religion, and he has simplified his life to make room. All through his life he turned down money and fame to keep love and passion at the center. The reward, it seems, is his simple excitement at finding a good piano (which he plays and rents for a recital but cannot actually afford to buy). The enemy in this case is not exactly evil — not in totality at least. It’s the soulless march of ambition and consumerism that bludgeon the human spirit into submission. “The most important thing is to inspire an emotional response for all aspects of life,” he tells his students.
Maybe that will inspire you to be kinder and more understanding with other people. If not, consider the words of poet W.H. Auden: “We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don’t know.”
Photos Courtesy of: Sundance Selects