“Seymour: An Introduction” Review: Ethan Hawke Crafts a Loving Tribute to His Personal Sage
Early in Seymour: An Introduction, Ethan Hawke stands on-screen next to Seymour Bernstein to explain why he decided to direct a movie about an octogenarian piano instructor. Hawke confesses a secret he says has been tormenting him: he has stage fright. Moreover, he no longer knows why he’s an actor, or whether acting is the best way for him to live his life.
Hawke appears intermittently throughout the film, questioning Bernstein directly, looking for answers. Bernstein is a man who walked away from a career as a concert pianist decades ago after playing one or two shows to enthusiastic reviews. He became a piano instructor, recording video instructionals and receiving young students in his one-room New York flat. He sleeps on a bed that folds out of an old sofa.
The movie isn’t about Bernstein’s soft touch at the piano, though we see and hear a lot of that, and even the musically illiterate among us can detect a particular aesthetic in the sounds he tries to produce. The movie is about why he plays for next to nothing when he could have done it for whatever measure of fame and riches a successful touring concert pianist can expect.
At least, that’s what Hawke seems to want to know. Hawke says that, for him, the material benefits of acting are a “phony” reason to keep doing it. In writing, that may sound insincere — a trendy disaffectedness — but when Hawke says it, it’s clearly earnest and almost anguished. Hawke wants to know if walking away — at what would be the height of his career from a critical perspective, given the recent success of Boyhood — would make him happier.
It has made Seymour happier, clearly. He has the look of a man comfortable in his own skin, but it is easy to believe that the spotlight would make him squirm. In his apartment, in front of his piano, he is the benevolent master of his domain. A word about his old, wood-frame piano: Seymour says, “It’s my piano, and yet it’s the most beautiful one I’ve ever heard.” His wording may have been unintentional, casual, but it says something important about him. He is a man for whom the grass is not greener. Everything he could want, he has. Even the very wealthy cannot, or do not, often say that.
Yet Seymour has no answers for Hawke. In fragments, throughout the film, his philosophical views come out. There is no grand purpose in life; our purpose, or purposes, are what we make them. He is patient and open when chatting with mystics and former students who share with him their own theories and axes to grind, but he always seems bemused by them, and is honest in his responses. Seymour is a little like a Wallace Shawn in a world of Andre Gregory‘s, but when he speaks about his art he has more than a touch of Andre in him, too.
The Korean War was a formative experience for Seymour. His memories of being drafted, of arriving in the country not knowing where on earth he was, of a chance encounter in the mist outside the mess tent, of organizing a concert on the front lines for his fellow soldiers, of body bags, these memories move him deeply and provide the most emotionally resonate moment in the film. Hawke and his editor Anna Gustavi are masterful with stock footage and the timing of cuts, here and throughout. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, a quick cut and smash zoom create a big laugh as Bernstein holds a student’s shoulders down to correct his posture.
I have to be honest: I might not like Bernstein much in person. He has a habit of touching people when he talks to them, and of looking directly at them for long stretches, which I find uncomfortable. Hawke reports finding him easy to talk to. Honesty and directness are probably rare qualities in Hawke’s usual circles, so it makes sense that to Hawke the man seems like, and is, a sage. I would probably develop an ulcer under his gaze.
But the documentary is thoroughly pleasant. Its big emotional and intellectual beats are perhaps a bit far between, with the intervening space devoted to conversations and observations that proceed at the pace of life. As Seymour says, “Not all notes can be passionate.”
If Hawke chooses to shift away from acting, he has bright prospects as a director. His chosen title is a misstep, an obscure literary reference that is more likely to turn people away than to draw them in. But only a few of his cutaways and stock clips, like one of The Beatles, seem poorly-chosen or wedged-in. Most, like a long shot of British pianist Sir Clifford Curzon, are ingenious at creating a sensation of new space within previously-shot footage. Next time Hawke makes a film either in front of or behind the camera, I will take extra notice.
Will you like the movie? If you liked any of these vaguely similar titles, odds are you will.
Seymour: An Introduction vs. Mr. Holland’s Opus
Mr. Holland’s Opus is the story of an aspiring composer who becomes a teacher out of financial necessity and finds he has a real calling for it. Though it’s crammed with talent, I find it treacly. Seeing the same dynamic play out as a documentary, starring someone who made the choice intentionally, is a nice corrective. Seymour wins.
Seymour: An Introduction vs. Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time
Like Seymour, Andy Goldsworthy is a reclusive artist who makes beautiful works that only he and a few other people get to enjoy. He makes temporary, spiraling structures with creative visual media like ice, leaves, and stones. The documentary about him is more naturally visually appealing than Seymour, but Seymour gets closer to the heart of its subject matter. This matchup could go either way, but I’ll give the edge to Seymour because of its behind-the-curtain Ethan Hawke dimension.
Seymour: An Introduction vs. Exit Through the Gift Shop
Banksy is an artist who has chosen to remain anonymous. Perhaps that’s partly because his work is not all strictly legal, and perhaps it’s also because it gives him an aura of mystique. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen Exit Through the Gift Shop, the documentary about him, but it was too good a matchup to pass by. You’ll have to tell me which one wins.