Telluride Wrap: Ethan Hawke Documentary 'Seymour' Rises Above the Rest

5:39 PM PST 09/02/2014 by Todd McCarthy
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
'Seymour: An Introduction'

This year's fest had had the usual share of awards chatter and big films, but the standout was unexpected

Birdman is a two-hour mainline cinematic rush. The Imitation Game tastefully and sadly presents a gay mathematical genius winning World War II but losing his life, not on the front but in bed. Reese Witherspoon gets down at last in Wild as a messed-up woman who sets her head straight by hiking 1,100 miles. 99 Homes hits home about the nation's economic gap. Escobar: Paradise Lost demonstrates that there's life left yet in the drug-dealer subgenre. And Rosewater will give talk show hosts everywhere hope that, yes, you too can become a film director. All these films are good or better, and will likely be recognized as such.

But the one new film I saw in Telluride this year that will be eternal, that embodies a profound worldview, a breathtakingly clear-headed perspective on art, personal commitment to it and its overarching value, and that inspires an example of, as Montaigne would put it, "how to live," was Ethan Hawke's documentary Seymour: An Introduction. It was over in 81 minutes, but I could have watched it all day. And then the next day and the day after that. If there were a pill that could provide one with the subject's wisdom, insight and intellectual clarity on a regular basis, I would take it and recommend it to everyone.

The man in question is Seymour Bernstein, a long-ago piano prodigy who, at 50, retired from public performing in order to concentrate exclusively on his great gift, teaching. Gentle, quiet-spoken and supremely articulate in an unpretentious, down-to-earth way, the now 80-something ruminates on many matters that relate to the leading of a fulfilling creative life: stage fright (the issue that brought Hawke and his subject together), careerism versus genuine achievement and, above all, the discovery of the purest emotional expression through one's work, which will in turn inspire a profound reaction extending beyond art into "all aspects of life."

Hawke's keenness to share his love and enthusiasm for Bernstein courses through the film, which smartly doesn't even attempt to be a biographical portrait — the better to give maximum room to the subject's distilled wisdom and discerning views on leading an artistic life, which have little to do with the outward manifestations of fame and success (Bernstein does not even have a Wikipedia page, although that's likely to change now), but by no means rule them out.

A compact fellow with a welcoming, cherubic face, Bernstein from appearances lives like a musical monk in a one-bedroom Manhattan apartment organized around his grand piano. The sheer joy he feels upon finding a piano with a miraculous sound in the Steinway basement is contagious. But more to the point are the clarity, balance and sense of properly distilled priorities that inform Bernstein's approach to art, which is so evolved and all-encompassing as to assume the trappings of a religion. The result is bliss, from an utterly unexpected and hitherto unknown source.

After last year's galvanizing 40th anniversary, Telluride scaled back to its normal four-day schedule this year and didn't desperately try to equal or top its previous banner edition. From a media point of view, all eyes were on the tension created by the Toronto Film Festival having thrown down the gauntlet by stating that no film premiering at Telluride would be given a prime first weekend slot north of the border.

In the event, this didn't seem to deter filmmakers or distributors in the slightest, as major specialty distributors and longtime friends of Telluride such as Fox Searchlight and Sony Classics brought their big late-year releases to the mountains, notably Searchlight's Birdman (which won't appear in Toronto at all) and Wild, and Sony's great Cannes quartet of Foxcatcher, Leviathan, Wild Tales and Mr. Turner. Other top Cannes 2014 titles that made their way to Telluride were Two Days, One Night, The Homesman, Red Army and Mommy. The Weinstein Company jumped in with the world premiere of The Imitation Game.

Without exception, the feeling among industry figures here was that Toronto had made itself look bad by getting in a huff and behaving like a bully over the issue of not getting the premieres of a mere handful of films. Toronto has somewhere north of 140 world premieres in its lineup this year; does it so desperately need thee or four more to secure its legitimacy and prestige? Was it such a humiliation last year that 12 Years A Slave and Gravity showed at Telluride first? The widespread opinion of professionals here was that Toronto should take a deep breath, swallow its pride and quietly drop the issue next year rather than further exacerbate what looks to everyone like a needless David and Goliath confrontation.

One of the most widely admired films in the lineup was The Salt of the EarthWim Wenders' documentary look at the socially committed Brazilian still photographer Sebastiao Salgado, which was co-directed by the subject's son Juliano. French directors made a good showing with Xavier Beauvois' droll The Price of Fame and Regis Wargnier's The Gate.

Out of the spotlight to an extent in recent years, director Volker Schlondorff was warmly embraced by the festival with both an impressive tribute and the premiere of his very good, so-called comeback feature Diplomacy, which has done very well in France. It was bracing to see Schlondorff and his old New German Cinema colleagues Wenders and Werner Herzog together again in one place, and even their late colleague Rainer Werner Fassbinder was represented with the first showings since 1970 of Baal, a television version of Bertolt Brecht's first play, in which Schlondorff directed Fassbinder in the title role. The previously unseen three-hour version of Schlondorff's interviews with Billy Wilder, Billy, How Did You Do It?, was also unveiled for hardcore buffs.

Guest directors Guy Maddin and Kim Morgan were on hand to present five carefully selected vintage favorites: Joseph Losey's ultra-rare 1951 version of M, Frank Bozage's A Man's Castle, Michelangelo Antonioni's Il Grido, Howard Hawks' The Road to Glory, Russell Rouse's Wicked Woman and Robert Altman's California Split.

The big events for cinephiles, however, were the programs centered upon Apocalypse Now on the occasion of the landmark film's 35th anniversary. Gathered together onstage on three separate occasions to discuss the arduous production and creative leaps involved were director Francis Coppola, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, producer-casting director Fred Roos, editor and sound editor Walter Murch, and in a nice surprise, writer John Milius, whose health impediments have tragically left him unable to speak, at least in public. Eleanor Coppola's documentary about the film's making, Hearts of Darkness, was shown on yet another occasion.

Underlining once again Telluride's unique status as a sort of open city among film festivals where artists and attendees can mingle without fuss or hierarchical barriers, all of the Apocalypse team members, including Coppola, were around all weekend and eminently approachable as they sat in cafes, walked the streets or waited in lines. The same held true for nearly everyone else who accompanied their films here. No matter that most of the press chatter is about the awards season; on the ground here, it's all about the work and the people who made it.

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