Playing by Heart: Seymour: An Introduction

03/11/2015 6:36 AM |
Image courtesy of Sundance Selects

Seymour: An Introduction

Directed by Ethan Hawke
Opens March 13

Some people just seem to have it all figured out. Seymour Bernstein, as seen in Ethan Hawke’s Seymour: An Introduction, is one of them.

This is a documentary that’s more philosophy than biography. Much like Rivers and Tides, the film about environmental sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, it considers its subject’s musings on art and how the disciplines one develops there can be applied to the rest of life. As recounted in the film, Hawke met the pianist at a time when he was feeling “inauthentic” about his acting, struggling to find what deeper reasons he had for it beyond money and “acting like a big shot.” Bernstein, a once-promising concert player who quit the professional track to teach, provided such comfort that Hawke was spurred to make this film. He didn’t want to tell Bernstein’s story so much as to capture his essence.

It’s likely a cult will grow around Seymour, if not Seymour, which is as charming as its subject but lacks urgency for also being as low-key. Bernstein talks about music as a universal “language of feelings,” and urges his students to respond to Bach and Beethoven as children would, on purely emotional terms, without any knowledge of structure or history. He explains that he quit playing professionally because of the commercial considerations required, but that he still “goes to war” with the art, though now for purer reasons, and on his own terms.

Salinger nod aside, the title is appropriate. Little is learned about great sections of Bernstein’s life: he lives alone, doesn’t seem to have kids or to have ever gotten married. A line about his father having “three daughters and a pianist” hints that he’s gay and wasn’t accepted by his family, but Hawke doesn’t pry. In a moving section, Bernstein describes playing music while stationed in Korea, then breaks down under the weight of memories. It’s one of the rare times that the film is devoid of music, a strong choice by Hawke in a film that otherwise lacks much sense of authorship.

Bernstein seems like a lovely man and a lovely teacher. At one point, a student of Seymour’s says that the focus he’s developed towards music has allowed him to be more responsive to other people. He’s clearly learning.