TV Preview: 'Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts' on PBS

The composer was filmed for 18 months, starting in 2005.
The composer was filmed for 18 months, starting in 2005. (By Scott Hicks -- Ava Bridge Motion Pictures)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 8, 2009

In some documentary films, the camera becomes a window through which a subject is revealed in stronger, sharper focus. In Scott Hicks's "Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts," airing tonight at 9 on PBS, the camera is a player in the action. Nosy, insistent and even moody, sometimes refusing to show you a photograph or object you want to see, it follows its subject with voyeuristic curiosity. It peers over his shoulder as he makes pizza, snoops through his sister's photographs, or pins him against a sofa as he submits to yet another interview, trying with goodwill to find something new and meaningful to say.

You'll learn a lot about Philip Glass from this film. What you won't learn is very much about his music, or even about him as an artist. Hicks, who already erected a temple to the noble mysteries of music with the popularizing "Shine" (remember the one about the crazy pianist?), evidently subscribes to the 19th-century, romanticizing view of Artist as Great Man. What he presents here, then, are nuggets offered up without much context: Philip sitting at a table composing; Philip doing qigong exercises; Philip being treated rather patronizingly by Woody Allen, one of the many film directors for whom he's written soundtracks ("Cassandra's Dream").

These things are all presumably of interest because Philip is An Artist, and we want to see What Artists Do. But it's the filmmaking equivalent of sifting through someone's wastebasket and pulling out every crumpled sheet of paper as a significant artifact of creation. It would be a lot more interesting to see What Philip Does if it were put in a context that helped the viewer understand what about his music is exciting or interesting.

Instead, Hicks mainly opts for an in-the-moment approach (the film, shot over 18 months starting in 2005, documents the creation and premiere of the Eighth Symphony and the opera "Waiting for the Barbarians"). It's not clear that he himself understands very much about the composer's work, and he certainly doesn't try to elucidate it. What he does is get Philip to talk in generalities about the creative process. We learn that music is like an underground river that is always there, and that he sometimes chooses to listen to and write down; we learn about his formidable work ethic ("My only secret," he says, "is you get up early in the morning and you work all day"). This is sometimes insightful, sometimes moving and sometimes feels as if Philip, an amiable Great Dane of a man shambling through life with a distinctive toe-out walk and a palpable desire to be accommodating, is just trying to say something that's going to satisfy his interlocutor so that he, Philip, can get on with his life.

More insights into the music might explain why we should care about what this particular composer thinks. But most of Hicks's interview subjects are film directors, friends and family members, rather than musicians. A newcomer to Glass's music might come away from this film with the impression that "Koyaanisqatsi" and "Einstein on the Beach" were the only seminal works from Glass's past; the names "Satyagraha" or "Music in Twelve Parts" are never mentioned (which means, among other things, that only those already in the know are going to get the reference of the film's title). And Hicks's relentlessly biographical approach doesn't do much for the pieces he does mention. The section about "Einstein on the Beach" conveys that it was a major event but doesn't really explain why, and the main focus of the segment falls on Philip's relationship with his difficult father.

Don't get me wrong: The film is eminently watchable. It has some good ideas, and it's thoughtfully put together. The 12 parts are cogently conceived, each introduced with a little tag at the end of the section before so that they interlock like puzzle pieces. Recurring themes are quickly introduced in a short prelude, a montage of quotes and images that lay out the film's leitmotifs. And there are some nice sequences about the actual making of art, particularly the genesis of "Waiting for the Barbarians": Hicks cuts from images of Glass and the conductor Dennis Russell Davies discussing the piece at Glass's vacation home in Nova Scotia to actual shots of the production, so you can see the ideas they're talking about made concrete.

And though I accuse Hicks of voyeurism, it's to his credit that he handles so tactfully a really juicy bit of life history that fell into his lap, the end of Philip's most recent marriage. The camera seems to have become something of a confidant for Holly, the now ex-wife.

Which only underlines the way the camera is used as a character throughout. The film should be called "Philip and Me." At one point, the composer, talking to a guest in the garden, comes inside and asks, into the camera, if Hicks could make the tea when the water boils. "It's the least you can do," he says, half-laughing and a little hostile. Placing yourself in the hands of someone else and entrusting them to tell your life is a leap of faith. Unfortunately this film, for all its surface appeal, is too focused on itself to get the story right.

Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts, airs tonight at 9 on PBS.

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