by Mel Valentin
SCREENED AT THE 2008 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Directed by Scott Hicks ("No Reservations," "Shine[/i]), "Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts," chronicles a year in the life of minimalist composer Philip Glass, culminating in the performance of his latest opera, "Waiting for the Barbarians" in Erfut, Germany two years ago. Hicks intercuts footage of Glass’s home life with interviews of Glass’ friends, family, and collaborators, including Errol Morris (they worked together for the first time on Morris’ groundbreaking documentary, "The Thin Blue Line" twenty years ago) and Woody Allen (their first collaboration, "Cassandra’s Dream" was released earlier this year). Hicks’ respectful portrait of Glass who, at seventy (now seventy one), continues to work on multiple projects, simultaneously, comes close to losing balance in favor of hagiography, but it’s a fascinating, compelling look at one of the twentieth century’s most important composers.As the title suggests, Hicks divides Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts into twelve parts in honor of Glass’ breakthrough work, Music in 12 Parts, composed between 1971 and 1974 as a culmination of Glass’ work up to that time. Hicks’ titles neatly encapsulate Glass’ personal and professional life, beginning with “A Day at the Office.” Unsurprisingly, Glass works on his compositions from a home office, allowing him time with his fourth wife, Holly, and their two sons (Glass has two sons from his first marriage). Structure and rigor dominate Glass’ life; both are vital to his creative process. A structured life also helps Glass from ruminating on his fears or anxieties, as does his “first thought, best thought” philosophy.
"A fascinating, if hagiographic, documentary about Philip Glass."
From there, Hicks follows Glass as he spends a day “Downtown,” visiting an old friend, Chuck Close, a painter and artist who used a then unknown Glass as a model for a series of portraits. Reminisces follow about Glass and Close’s experiences during the 1960s and early 1970s, living and working in SoHo (before it was called SoHo) with his first wife and children, composing and performing music in loft spaces to semi-appreciative audiences, and finding different ways to make ends meet until he could make a living as a composer and performer. Glass credits the negative press he received with fueling interest and recognition of his work. As Glass later reveals, even after the Metropolitan Opera House performed his first major opera, Einstein at the Beach, driving a cab was still necessary (not for long, obviously).
Hicks skips back to the more personal in the next part, “Summer in Nova Scotia,” following Glass and his family at their second home in Nova Scotia. Glass purchased the property almost forty years ago and, besides a farmhouse and cottage formerly dubbed the “hermitage” (where Glass lived and worked alone for years), Glass built several cabins for guests. As it becomes clear from Hicks’ selection of footage, Glass never stops working on one of compositions, whether his latest symphony (he’s seen working on his eighth), an opera, or a film score. The next, briefer section, “Snapshots” continues Hicks’ focus on Glass’ personal life as Glass’ brother and sister share family stories, including painful memories involving Glass’ third wife, Candy (she died of cancer) and how he met Holly (at a restaurant), while looking through old photographs.
True to form, Hicks jumps back to Glass’ professional life in the next section, “Riding to Work on Mars,” which focuses on Glass’ film scores and his collaborative approach to writing music for film and working with directors. With the help of a small staff, Glass’ film scores are developed at his recording studio, Looking Glass Studios. Hicks interviews Errol Morris, Woody Allen (briefly), Martin Scorsese, and Godfrey Reggio, the director of Koyaanisqatsi: A Life Out of Balance, Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation, and Naqoyqatsi: Life as War. Glass seems energized by collaboration, even when his vision for a score is altered through collaborating with filmmakers.
The next two parts, “Einstein at the Beach,” “The Foggy Field,” focus on two of Glass’ works, the 1976 opera Glass made in collaboration with Robert Wilson and his work on his then unfinished, unproduced Eighth Symphony (it premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Art), before shifting to Glass’ spiritual life, “The Spirit Within,” which covers Glass’ exploration of Tibetan Buddhism, Taoist meditation, and Native American spirituality, before shifting back to his professional life and his work on his latest opera, Waiting for the Barbarians, an adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s novel, with a libretto by Christopher Hampton, Glass’ “Undying Passion” for creating music, with a tangent into the effect his passion has on his relationship with his wife, and finally, to the triumphant “Opening Night” of the opera.With so much ground to cover, Hicks deserves credit for keeping the running time for "Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts" under two hours. All that breadth comes at the expense of depth, however. While Glass’ compositions are omni-present, Hicks’ doesn’t identify them by title or year, nor does he interview fellow composers, academics, or critics to discuss Glass’ music or place it in context. Instead, Hicks presumes his audience is familiar with Glass’ work and, at least on some level, appreciates it. More depth would have certainly helped if not in gaining new converts to Glass’ music, then in creating a greater understanding of his work. Still, that’s a minor criticism for a documentary that’s primarily interested in giving Glass’ fans insights into his personal and professional lives. Hicks’ documentary does that much extremely well.
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originally posted: 05/10/08 12:00:00