When I was 12 or 13 I had no tolerance for math and was flunking algebra, and so my parents sent me to a math tutor, an old guy who really smelled old and occasionally acted old. Which is to say he was rigid, autocratic and even scolding from time to time. He made me write down algebraic equations until they came out of my ears, and these late-afternoon sessions were so painful that, unfair as it sounds, I gradually came to hate the tutor as much as the math. When the sessions finally ended after a few weeks I put them in a little box and the box in a drawer, and after a decade or so I’d completely forgotten about the whole mathematical agony of it all. Algebra, trigonometry and calculus were torture, and I never once used any of my arduous math lessons in any kind of practical way. If I need to add, subtract, divide or multiply I use my iPhone calculator. The people who made me study math all those years in high school were sadists.
In any event yesterday I saw Ethan Hawke‘s Seymour, An Introduction, a documentary portrait of retired classical pianist and present-tense teacher Seymour Bernstein, who’s now 87. God help me but I almost hated it. Not because it’s badly made or uninteresting, though I wouldn’t exactly call it riveting. It’s because the more I watched Hawke’s film, the less I was able to handle Bernstein the man.
I admire Bernstein’s passion and skill and delicacy as he instructs and plays — don’t get me wrong. And I marvelled at various pearl-like insights that he passes along. He explains that the order of music reflects the order of the cosmos…love it…and that “most people don’t tap the God within” and that his most profound joy as a teacher comes when “I pour it into you,” as he says to a longtime student. Awesome. But Bernstein’s persistent and gently domineering manner reminded me of my math tutor from 7th grade, and I’m sorry but as loving and impassioned as Hawke’s film is it mainly re-ignited my rage. I started to clench up early on. Bernstein is so needling and exacting, so interruptive and particular. It made me nervous just watching him put a female student through the wringer. If I was one of Bernstein’s piano students I would go absolutely nuts. I would get up and say “thank you for your time, Mr. Bernstein” and walk out and never return.
I started out vaguely disliking Bernstein, and then genuinely disliking him. And then I began to see him as a smiling benevolent ghoul.
Hawke doesn’t ask or explore who Bernstein is in personal terms (wife, family, neighbors, gay…what?) so it’s kind of a drag to listen to one profound lesson after another…one scene after another after another in which Bernstein talks about how wise or accomplished he is, or his students saying the same. Everything out of Bernstein’s mouth seems to be “me, me, me, me, me….and then I said, and then I did…my gloriousness, my genius, my gift…the wonder of my legacy.” Hey, Bernstein…there might be a little more to the world than is dreamt of in your wonderful philosophy!
And what the hell is Ethan Hawke on about when he says he doesn’t know why he’s acting and that he always knew that fame and fortune were shallow motives but he could never figure out the real underlying reasons. Jesus H. Christ! He’s acting in order to provide a kind of theatrical or cinematic deliverance for those who are sensitive enough to receive it…to summarize and provide meaningful echoes of the human condition in front of audiences, so that they might recognize a little something of themselves in his characters and come to a greater understanding of their own lives and indeed the life of this era, this culture, this planet.
I’m not even an actor and I just made that up and it sounds pretty good. Hawke doesn’t know this stuff? He really doesn’t know what he’s doing or why he’s doing it? My respect for him has plummeted. Be a man, do the job and shut up.
I’m almost sorry I saw Seymour, An Introduction as it filled me with such needless negativity. I’m trying to remember the last time I hated a doc as much as this one.
Here’s a much kinder review from Variety‘s Justin Chang.