Monday 10 August 2015

Seymour: An Introduction & Listen to Me Marlon - Peter Hourigan reviews two docos at MIFF

Listen To Me Marlon,  (Stevan Rilay, UK, 2015, Masters & Restorations Section)
Seymour : An Introduction (Ethan Hawke, USA  2014, Backbeat Section)

During a Film Festival, several films can rub up against each other in mutually illuminating ways. This was the case for me with these two films which I saw back-to-back.  (Only needed a change of cinemas).    I’ll start with Seymour: An Introduction, directed by Ethan Hawke.  Its subject is Seymour Bernstein, a classical pianist now in his late 80s who retired from a highly successful  performing career at 50.

Hawke appears several times, when he introduces Bernstein to a small musical soiree, and explains how he came to be making the film.  He had met Bernstein at a dinner party, felt so comfortable talking with the elderly musician about his own sense of incompleteness with his career, and felt impelled to discover why Seymour felt so comfortable with his own artistic life.

So, a major theme emerges clearly – what impels a career in the arts, and why artists frequently are so dissatisfied with their successes.  Now, in a teaching career Bernstein comes across as a wonderfully contented person, still giving wonderful lessons, and enjoying the warmth and enduring affection of past pupils, and the full respect of many including the manager of the rental section of Steinway pianos.

From one of Steinway’s past pupils, an idea emerged that kept playing in my head.  This past pupil, now a concert performer himself, said how it was important for him to keep composing music, and always included one of his own pieces in his concerts.  Which made me think of interesting differences between the creative artist and the re-creative artist.  A concert pianist, after all, spends hours and hours and hours practicing to come closer to expressing the ideas of another person. A performance is, in a way, an interpretation not a full individual creative act.

And perhaps for many actors this some disconnect exists with their impulsion to be creative and the fact that their career involves being a pawn to realise other people’s creative ideas.  Hawke would appear to have found his own ways to handle this, having now written  novels, been involved in the scripts of films he’s appeared in (especially with Richard Linklater) and also directing several films.  But it’s interesting that in Seymour he states his sense of something empty in the career.  Perhaps it this feeling that is the important driving force – the urge to be more and more creative rather than always just re-creative.

 These thoughts from Hawke’s film bounced back in my mind onto Stevan Riley’s film about Marlon Brando.  This film expands on the many docos (most probably not deserving the full “documentary” descriptor) about Brando.  Much of it is built around almost confessional tape recordings found among his estate.  These reveal a Brando almost painfully aware of the emptiness of much of what he had to do, a contempt for many of the people he had to deal.
We’re certainly aware of the bad reputation that Brando earned over the course of his career, rewriting scripts, leaving projects,”phoning in performances”, sending an American-Indian proxy to accept an Oscar.  And of desperately sad events in his private life, perhaps culminating with his son’s murder of his half-sister’s boyfriend.

 Listen to Me Marlon does not of course come up with a definitive analysis of Brando, as an artist or as a person. But it does represent his complexity and his lifelong quest for “something”. Perhaps if that “something” could be defined more completely, if it wasn’t so abstract we’d have more contented actors, and actresses (and concert pianists) but then we’d miss the fire that comes from their search.

These two films both communicated aspects of this creative urge in their own way. The Brando film will probably be more widely seen, if simply because its subject is already so well known. But Hawke's film about Seymour Bernstein deserves to be seen just as widely. Even if just for the sheer pleasure of spending time in the company of such a wonderful old man.

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