Knowing to Play the Keys Halfway

Seymour: An Introduction Screens at Docville, as part of RIDM

Still from Seymour : An Introduction Courtesy of RIDM

Ethan Hawke’s debut documentary film Seymour: An Introduction is a product of the actor’s own existential and professional crisis, as he tells the camera early on in the movie—before stepping back to leave the scene to his friend and mentor Seymour Bernstein.

Bernstein is a 70-year old concert pianist and composer who, at the peak of a prominent career, stopped performing in order to devote his life to teaching. Scene after scene, the viewer can take away a lesson from each of Seymour’s reflections on his own life which is just as well crafted as his musical talent.

The most profound moments are always paired with witty, amusing anecdotes—from Glenn Gould’s tendency to show off, to Beethoven reproaching his male audience for breaking into tears after listening to his Moonlight Sonata for the first time.

Throughout the movie, we meet some of Seymour’s friends and alumni, some of which have become successful concert pianists themselves, and others, like The New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman, who have also taken up different paths, but still rely on Seymour’s friendship and insight.

In one of the several piano classes we witness in the movie, Seymour teaches his students not to always press the keys of the piano all the way to the bottom, but instead to know when to stop halfway, in order to obtain the volume and texture that will fit the piece and reach the feelings of the listener.

It feels as if Hawke tries to apply this to his own filmmaking, playing the keys of cinema with delicacy and taste. The eye of the camera is never invasive as it documents Seymour’s daily routine, from his practices to the tidying of his sofa bed in his one room apartment.

At times Hawke’s inquiries into his friend’s past might even seem too shy. But the point of the movie is not to lead the audience through an investigation on Seymour as a kind of fetish character, but rather to invite us to listen humbly as Hawke himself does for most part of the movie. And although we might wish to learn more about, for instance, Seymour’s sentimental life, the title of the film serves as a warning: it is an introduction, but with a man whose philosophy of life is so powerful that it can sustain an entire movie.

Seymour: An Introduction // Cinéma Excentris (3536 St. Laurent Blvd.) // Thursday, March 26 at 8 p.m. // Docville, a series hosted by Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal (RIDM