Dir: Scott Hicks. Australia . 2007. 122mins.
The critical relationship of subject to filmmaker is the tipping point for most documentary portraits. It is the primary distinction between a probing and objective analysis and hagiography. In Scott Hicks' Glass, the composer Philip Glass has allowed the director unmediated exposure to his life and work, and it is particularly disappointing that Hicks in turn is so timid and apparently unwilling to use that access to truly elucidate his subject .
The closeness of their relationship is not unexpected. Glass has just completed the score for Hicks' current fiction film, No Reservations. Glass is subtitled A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts. The best documentary portraits are the equivalent of biographies that interweave historical analysis, artistic evolution and personal reflection. Glass, however, proves frustratingly opaque in trying to understand Glass' art or unlock his personality.
The documentary is fairly episodic and somewhat ungainly in its construction. With one strong exception near the movie's end, Glass feels safe, guarded and too protective to exist as anything other than a well-made, perfectly appointed commission. The movie premiered at Toronto 's documentary programme, though festival screenings are likely its only significant theatrical exhibition. Public television and DVD are the primary outlets for something that off appears a vanity project.
The 12-parts are perhaps a reference to Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone system, though it seems more likely a kind of DVD chapter that allows the viewer to glide in and out at their convenience. Structurally the movie is a kind of travelogue that shifts among a series of locations and settings, moving from the intense bustle and activity of the composer's New York apartment and studio to the pastoral openness of his vast baronial estate in Nova Scotia.
Hicks interweaves Glass talking about his life and work with vignettes about his home life with his fourth wife Holly and two young sons, family remembrances with his brother and sister and collaborations with the Philip Glass Ensemble.
Glass has written for the opera, symphonies and conceptual dance art, though his most significant public attention has come interestingly enough from his film scores. A former philosophy major who trained classically at Julliard, Glass made a formative connection living and working in Paris in the early 1960s, where a film assignment introduced him to the work of Indian master Ravi Shankar. It is his brilliant synthesis of East and West that gives Glass' intricate and hypnotic work its particular pull.
The mood is jovial, fraternal and relaxed, though there is a forceful lack or detail or point of view that shapes that material.
Martin Scorsese, one of the most erudite commentators on the work of other artists, is interviewed about Glass' contribution on his Dalai Lama project Kundun. Disappointingly though, what Scorsese has to say is so unedifying it feels like an outtake. The same occurs with Woody Allen and Errol Morris, in many ways Glass' most important film collaborator. A lot of the rapturous, mathematical precision of Morris' work, like the Oscar-winning Fog of War, is due to Glass' involvement, and this is given little or no attention.
Glass' greatest film score is arguably his remarkable work won Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, but it is never acknowledged here. Nor is there any mention of Glass' work on more mainstream fare. He also has a mischievous side, doing scores for horror films such as Candyman.
Not until the end does the movie have a jarring moment that breaks the compliant tone. The composer's supportive wife Holly suddenly breaks down in front of the camera, revealing her frustration at her husband's obsessive work habits and extended absences from home. It is the first indication of a break in the emotional fault line. Hicks appears flummoxed and allows the moment to pass. A better, tougher and more natural documentary filmmaker would have seized the moment. It's sadly indicative of a film that squanders every opportunity to present a more complicated and revealing portrait of its subject's vanity and arrogance.
Kino Film Co.