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Seymour: An Introduction

SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ethan Hawke

MPAA Rating: PG (for some mild thematic elements)

Running Time: 1:24

Release Date: 3/13/15 (limited); 3/20/15 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 19, 2015

Imagine having a life filled with financial success, fulfilled career aspirations, and professional and public adoration right in front of you. You have put in the work. You have earned the respect of the right people. You have the right opportunities coming one after the other. You need only continue doing what you've been doing. That's it, and you're set for life.

That's the position Seymour Bernstein, a classical pianist, was in almost 40 years ago. He had spent his life practicing and coming as close to perfecting his craft as anyone reasonably could. He had the gigs lined up around the globe. He received the shining notices from the harshest of critics. Then, at the age of 50, he stopped performing publicly, deciding instead to teach students and to relegate his piano playing to the confines of the one-room apartment where he has lived for almost 60 years.

Director Ethan Hawke, who met Bernstein at a dinner party and has been friends with him since, opens his documentary Seymour: An Introduction with shots of the corners of his subject's tiny living accommodations. Upon our first look at the place, it's kind of sad—the dishes piled up next to the sink in the galley kitchen, the tight space that provides little room to do much walking, the lack of an actual bedroom or, for that matter, a bed (In one sequence, we see him returning the fold-out couch upon which he sleeps to its sitting position). When we start to hear about the career this man had and could have had, it becomes even sadder that a man of his obvious talent would be forced to this Spartan lifestyle.

We expect to hear the story of some personal tragedy or professional downfall. We expect that something broke within him, that someone ruined his life, that some concert went terribly wrong, or something along those lines.

Then we hear Bernstein speak. He has a quiet voice with a pleasant lilt to it. There's a hint of laughter within his intonations, even when he's offering constructive criticism to his students, who latch on to his every word. Whenever he does have something to criticize about his students' playing, he is always quick to follow it up with a sudden eruption of encouragement when the student follows his instruction. If there's a negative or angry or bitter bone in this man's body, he does an amazing job of hiding it. At one point, he insists that there is, but he says even that with a chuckle.

He is, as people of generations younger than him would say, the sweetest old man. If we had any pity on him for his lifestyle, it evaporates instantly upon learning that everything that is happening in his life at the moment—his living conditions and his job—and everything that happened before it—abandoning a promising career above all else—is and was his decision. When we see him sitting at the piano in his apartment—practicing some piece that he has probably played more times than most people have heard it—we realize that all of it is enough for him. It may be even more than enough for him.

The film's subtitle is apt. This is not some all-encompassing biography of Bernstein's life or a dissection of what makes him tick. This is Hawke serving as an intermediary between us and his friend. The director thinks we would enjoy meeting Bernstein, hearing a few stories from him, learning some of his thoughts on music and life, and, of course, watching him practice and listening to him play the piano in public for the first time in 37 years.

Hawke is correct. Bernstein is well worth meeting, and the film follows him through his daily routine, his conversations with friends, his reminiscences of his past, and his advice. Hawke, who serves as the host of Bernstein's public concert and the interviewer but stays off-camera for most of the film, says that he felt inspired to tell his subject's story because of advice that he had offered at that dinner party—advice that was more useful to him than any he heard from people in his own field.

There's a lot of food for thought in Bernstein's words. There are his beliefs about the importance of honing a craft over any innate talent a person may possess. He offers ideas about the spiritual side of life (There's a delightful moment in which a friend of his, a mystic, explains how he once achieved a state of being able to hear the musical harmony of all the components of the universe, and Bernstein's childlike wonderment at the very thought of such a thing leaves him only able to say, "Really"—with the unspoken sentiment along the lines of, "I'd really like to hear that"). He explains the notion that fear is a natural reaction when involved in a craft that one truly loves. It's nothing revolutionary, but Bernstein's matter-of-fact slices of wisdom, offered without the slightest hint of posturing, are genuinely inspiring, if only because we can sense the sincerity behind every thoughtful word.

The man has had pain (He's brought to tears just remembering reading his diary from his time during the Korean War) and continues to have joy in his life, but what's missing—quite admirably—is any sense of regret. There's one moment in Seymour: An Introduction that touches upon that possibility. One his friends, a former student (One gets the idea that none of the people here will ever consider themselves "former" students) who is now a journalist, asks about Bernstein's responsibility to share his talent. How does he justify depriving the world of it? "I have the perfect answer," he says, and again, he's correct: "I poured it into you."

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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