Those who feel disenchanted with the world-weary timbre of the film festival circuit would do well to catch actor Ethan Hawke’s warm and quiet documentary Seymour: An Introduction. Sandwiched between viewings of The Look of Silence and Stray Dogs—both recent NYFF offerings, and admirable but merciless works of art—Seymour possessed an alluring sort of antigravity, a soft tug at the heart and ears one might glean simply looking at the film’s description on its TIFF webpage. This documentary, about the concert pianist-cum-private piano teacher Seymour Bernstein, was conceived when Ethan Hawke “first met Bernstein at a dinner party while grappling with the question ‘why make art?’” The film amiably shuttles back and forth between different perspectives through which to consider this question, but its projected answer never seems to stray far from a guileless, incontrovertible “Yes”.
Seymour plays like a nested series of increasingly affirmative statements on music and the human spirit: did you know that such chance meetings as that between Hawke and Bernstein can generate mutual revelations about careers and larger ambitions, altering the way each approaches their art? That individual brilliance will often triumph over the unrelenting exchange of capital? That music is the conduit through which we might communicate and perhaps even merge with the divine? All this and more is proffered through the tale of the movie’s titular subject, an 87-year-old retired concert pianist who splits his time between master classes at NYU and private lessons given out of his snug Upper West Side studio apartment. Bernstein, we soon learn, opted out of his rapturously reviewed public performance circuit in 1977, freeing up his creative juices, his time, and his capacity for giving lessons and attending dinner parties such as that which occasioned the making of this documentary. As told by the man himself, this tale is a delight: Bernstein is a wonderful subject, hilarious and thoughtful and a remarkably balanced storyteller. He seems both lightly amused and deeply humbled by the unfolding of his creative life, and his occasional dabbling in straight-talk (during his master classes, or in a mirthful scene which finds Bernstein tinkering around with various Steinway pianos, branding them either “crap” or “gorgeous” after a few seconds of playing) seem generated in the impulses of the truth-seeker rather than the self-aggrandizer.
All of these qualities are revealed in the gratifying narrative framework of a return to public performance, albeit a performance of an unusual kind. Hawke, having found in Bernstein a close friend and a sort of avuncular muse, invites him to play one last time in front of what seems to be a handpicked audience of actors, entertainment lawyers, and musicians. The whole tale is, quite simply put, beautiful stuff; one cannot help but share Ethan Hawke’s excitement—the nervously lugubrious nature of which, it should be said, freakishly mirrors that of his characters in Richard Linklater’s Before series. Hawke is one among many interlocutors who serve only to sing Bernstein’s praises: Times columnists, former and current students, prominent concert pianists, and other figures seem to pass in and out of the film’s revolving doors to genuflect at his feet. There is nothing wrong with this per se, but it lends the film a thudding thematic monotony that weighs on the viewer toward the end of its quick 80-minute runtime. This feeling is not exactly ameliorated by Hawke’s directing, which is skilled and tasteful but rather bland, mostly comprising clean digital shots of apartments and concert halls with the occasional glance through a window or door to add visual interest. If, by this point, you’re thinking that this sounds like another movie you’ve seen but forgot the name or circumstances of, trust me: it should.
There are few exceptions to this hyperdetermined weave of muted emotion, narrative, and visuals, only one of which personally rings out in the afterglow. Discussing the great concert pianist Glenn Gould, Bernstein muses on the potential pitfalls of fame and wealth; Gould, we are told and might already know, was a “neurotic mess.” Bernstein then offers an anecdote: he once caught a Gould performance, during which the pianist folded his right leg over his left so that his feet were controlling their “opposite” pedals. What, Bernstein wonders, could be the motivation behind this gesture? Perhaps these are the quirks that empower or sanction great genius—perhaps Gould simply could not play any other way. Bernstein then recalls a conversation with a close friend of Gould’s, wherein the friend divulged that Gould took pride in “tricking” his audience. “Hah! That audience was probably bamboozled when I switched my legs,” Gould purportedly giggles. It’s a wonderfully confusing moment: where does this play into the film’s tapestry of visionary optimism? Is this proof of creativity’s triumph over capitalism, or vice versa, or something else entirely? The anecdote is never really explained or expanded upon, just dropped directly into the film, engaging the audience in its jarring ripple effect. It works so well in part because of the trust implied between director, subject, and audience—we are all treated as equals in a conversation whose meaning has not already been determined by the simplifications of the documentary form. This kind of interaction, you may infer, is sorely lacking throughout the rest of the film. Perhaps in filming their blithe musings on the sublime potential of making “art”—the strict definition of which is, thankfully, never stressed—Bernstein and Hawke have themselves conjured a work worthy of that tag. Yet even in the midst of their palpable joy, it’s hard not to feel as if our role, as the audience, has been reduced to the inert canvas.