Escape or Liberation?

GLASS: A portrait of Philip in twelve parts
dir. Scott Hicks, 2007

“Writing is an antidote to the chaos of the world around you.” So said an unnamed writer, friend of Philip Glass. Philip muses, “Is art, then, escape or liberation? Is sanity also escape?” This, the end of Scott Hicks’s documentary, neatly wraps together what has been a subtly presented portrait of Glass — we are given no heavy-handed voice-over analysis here.

The chaos simmers below the surface in Glass’s biography. By all appearances, he is a quiet, mild-mannered sort, questioning why Hicks would even want to film his process of making pizza at his retreat home in Nova Scotia. His young child breaks a glass, his wife panics a little, he continues his work. We are introduced to his childhood by his siblings, who, while sifting through old family photographs, talk about his personal ambition to attend the University of Chicago, graduate in three years, and then decide to go to Julliard. Photo archives of early work in New York brush on the radical nature of performances. We are privy to both the siblings and family friends making comments about “the wives.”

Though Hicks goes so far as to subtitle his film “a portrait…in twelve parts,” the labeling is a bit of a misnomer; the twelve parts are structural elements, places for title cards. This is a quite organically made film, as it is clear Hicks and his sound recordist spent a good deal of time embedded, as it were, with Glass, his family, and his professional associates. It seems as though Hicks perhaps needed the structure of twelve themes as a schematic for organizing his footage. For the viewer, however, many of the segments blend into one another, return to common places or voices. Others branch into different directions, providing new voices to the greater narrative. Not only is the filmmaking itself very honest, but we as viewers are actually privy to this through the editing of the film. We occasionally hear Hicks asking a question, and, at a particularly poignant moment in the film, an interview is interrupted, the camera must adjust, the boom mic enters the shot, the shot continues, the camera then readjusts, refocuses, and the interview resumes.
At another point, Glass receives and ignores a cell phone call in the middle of being interviewed. He has been discussing his latest work — an opera entitled “Waiting for the Barbarians” — and the theme from the end has been playing in the soundtrack. It drops away as Glass takes the call, and after he jokes with Hicks about not wanting to talk to the person calling, he returns to his point about the opera. The music slowly fades back up.

A slicker documentarian would edit this all out, and we would be far the worse for it as an audience. At face value, Glass’s biography is far less nuanced; after all, he was a smart child who became a successful student who studied under some top-tier musicians and has since become a well-respected composer. There is some drama, some tragedy, but this is a more private man than that. His controversy, publicly, has been his art.

Unlike many “portraits of an artist,” GLASS does not dwell on the details of this artist’s process. We see Glass working in different venues, and we begin to gain an understanding of his practice through interviews with his wife and his colleagues, among them Errol Morris and Woody Allen.

For Glass, art is life — as he says, “I don’t think of a piece of music, think of what I’m going to write, I hear it.” A little precious, yes, but this is Philip Glass, after all.

“Music is listening.
Drawing is seeing.
Dancing is moving.
And poetry is speaking.”

NB: As I left the film theater, crowds of well-dressed, mostly middle-aged and older folks were streaming into the Rococo for a lecture by Ken Burns. That would have been a different kind of documentary, indeed.

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