Director Scott Hicks ( Shine) lets composer Philip Glass take the lead in Glass: A Portrait of Philip in 12 Parts.
If you don’t know who Philip Glass is (or if his textured, repetitive music grates on your nerves), you should probably skip this documentary altogether.
Are we alone? Just us Glass fans? Good. Then I’ll continue.
Since the title of this documentary tells you its structure, let’s start there. Hicks presents twelve chapters, each a thematically coherent piece. Labeling chapters seems like a cop-out that filmmakers reach for when they can’t see an overall arc to the story. Granted, Hicks is a decent storyteller. The documentary does manage to build — it has a crescendo — from simple and expository facts to complex, subtle, and esoteric interpretations. But the twelve chapters seem more of a gimmick than a necessity.
We start out with Glass recalling his early years. The first steps in his career are illustrated with photos and recollections. We’re introduced to family (including two wives) and friends. One of Hicks’ “parts” consists of Glass and an older relative — was it an aunt? — looking at pictures of Philip as a child. I’d have preferred a movie that left this part out and just included the other 11.
Most of the details in these early parts are of limited interest. If they serve a purpose, it’s to get us acquainted with Glass’ environment — a cluttered office in the city, and a quiet, cool cabin near a beach; and his personality — he comes across as intelligent, hard-working, soft-spoken, yet impatient, verging on short-tempered.
But as Glass starts talking about the meaning of music (while preparing a delicious-looking hand-made pizza), the depth of his genius starts to emerge. Glass begins to talk to Hicks’s camera as an equal. And that’s when we get some really interesting insights into how a composer views music. I may not have gotten the quote exactly right, but Glass won me over when he explained, “music is listening, not thinking. Theory is thinking, but music is about listening in the way that drawing is about seeing. The music is already there, you just have to write it down.”
Hicks manages to bring the audience in to the hot molten core of a deep conversation with Glass. When discussing an intense writing session, Glass says “I’m not sure if it’s A-flat or A-natural because I was at the limits of what I could hear when I wrote it.” I would think that in a chord, an A-flat would sound very different from an A-natural, but I loved hearing a composer talk about the limits of hearing, as though he were speaking to another gifted composer about the perils of their profession.
I was also impressed with Glass’ own stature in the music world. Hicks reveals Glass’ world-class training in Paris with a teacher I’d never heard of, but about whom everyone else seemed to have a great reverence. The amount of work and talent involved in earning his degree from this person would have been enough to impress me. Even more impressive is that Glass went on to a more popular and approachable career (including the integral score to personal favorites the -Qatsi trilogy); Glass didn’t retire to the ivory tower of academia.
But Hicks presents Glass warts and all. Glass can seem impatient and overbearing. His wives generally speak well of him but acknowledge his personal flaws. While one wife speaks intimately to the camera about the rocks in their relationship, Glass barges in and demands her computer password. The movie shows Glass’ spiritual journey, but also hints at his being suckered by shaman half his age whose philosophy, from what I can gather, is one of humiliation and endangerment. Hicks asks if it’s true Glass was buried alive by the mystic and Glass quickly and firmly says “we don’t talk about that.”
The best part of the film is the middle act, which builds on the factual foundation from the first part, and moves into the meaning of music. The conclusion involves a lot of footage from a new Glass opera, which is visually interesting and gives the audience a chance to hear some new music. But Glass was better when we were talking about the subject with the man himself.
Glass: A Portrait of Philip in 12 Parts is worth watching if you’re a fan of Glass’ music. But it might make a better DVD or interactive game, where you could pick and choose which of the 12 parts you want to see. I might have only chosen 8 or 9 of them.