Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Seymour: An Introduction (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Seymour: An Introduction

The actor Ethan Hawke directs this affectionate and philosophical portrait of his friend  and confidant, Seymour Bernstein, a lifelong pianist and composer in the classical genre.

Bernstein emerges as a kind of musical Yoda through the course of this documentary entitled "Seymour: An Introduction," composed chiefly of conversations with the musician as he conducts his classes.

Hawke met the pianist at a party at a quiet moment during a time when struggling and out of sorts, at odds with being a successful actor while feeling personally empty.

When Hawke asks him (with the anguish of a Lon Chaney Jr as The Wolf-man) how to achieve fulfillment, Bernstein, puzzled, replies, "Don't you do this by your acting?".

The actor is left speechless.

Despite the interior landscape of this documentary, this film is never boring. Through semi-comic snippets and asides we see the inner and outer life of this man. Surrounded by books and the curios that he has collected, Bernstein exists very like a monk.

A Steinway piano is his most treasured instrument with a wonderful blossoming tone when other pianos often utter sounds that die in the air all too quickly and no two musical creatures are ever alike.

He has no wife or lover. Indeed no valentine or any partner is ever mentioned. Bernstein prizes the solitary, existing in a state where life and sound are intermixed as one whole beyond the physical. At one point he says, "I create a cone of protection around me, no selfish ones can get in..."

Bernstein gave up public concerts at 58, paralyzed by anxiety and worry, but always succeeding in the eyes of the public.

A life of the ear and the heart proved the only way. It was at this point when Bernstein emerged into himself and "stopped lying to people".

The spirit of the composer emerges through small impressionistic segments. We see different people visit and study with Bernstein with some students perplexed as to why he hasn't followed material success.

At such moments, he invariably gives an amused half smile and moves on.

Poignantly we learn of his time in the Korean War when his music gave him comfort and solace, steadfast throughout trauma like a magic tuxedo-colored thread, refuge from  shapes of bodybags hanging before his eyes like notes of sound, mute and deformed.

To Bernstein, music is like a god as both are invisible. Yet unlike religion which require a faith in the unexplainable, music's language is written on paper for all to play and feel---a siren's call of order and harmony.

Entertaining it is to see the effect this teacher has on his students. One in particular is suddenly tongue tied, making  a fluttering motion with her hands as if playing a piano. This gesture proves more truthful than any verbal declaration, for Seymour Bernstein is a piano and he strives to maintain this state of inter-living.

Although he is not the focus of this film, perhaps Ethan Hawke remains the biggest enigma. How did the actor come to be troubled? And what does music really mean to him, either in color, shape or feeling? He poses questions but is left silent by Bernstein's compact replies.

Like a quirky  mumblecore instrument, Hawke is content to add his own texture and then exit, giving his friend a chance to flourish and introduce himself.

"Seymour: An Introduction" with its classical selections and revealing story-telling, stresses upon us the importance of actual breath in making our own compositions, be they musical or otherwise.

Write Ian at Ianfree1@icloud.com

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