Ethan Hawke’s career is distinguished by contemplative roles, notably the ones associated with Richard Linklater, though in his limited output as a director — the two narrative dramas “Chelsea Walls” and “The Hottest State” — he hasn’t found the same degree of perceptive material. But that has changed with his endearing documentary “Seymour: An Introduction,” a sweetly affecting portrait of creative genius existing outside of marketplace concerns that may as well serve as the actor’s mission statement.
Though the title echoes J.D. Salinger’s 1959 novella, “Seymour” has nothing to do with its namesake aside from both works being rich with contemplation. Hawke focuses on little-known concert pianist Seymour Bernstein, an octogenarian music instructor who lives alone in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Once considered among the next generation of great concert pianists alongside contemporaries like Glenn Gould, Bernstein garnered raves for his performances at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall weeks after it opened in the late sixties.
But within a matter of years, due to a combination of stage fright and disdain for the commercial side of the music industry, he quit performing for a living and began teaching full-time. It’s here that Hawke finds his subject, in an opening montage of intimate sessions with students of various ages, encouraging them to grow attuned to the internal rhythms of the work. Through ensuing discussions with a New York Times journalist, former students and peers, Bernstein explains the philosophical gratification he finds in his instructional role. “I’m not so sure a major career is a healthy thing,” he says, which naturally sets up a contrast with the high profile career of the movie’s director.
It doesn’t take long for Hawke to surface in front of the camera as well, gathering acquaintances for a public discussion with Berstein in which the actor admits to a creative crisis surrounding “why I do what I do.” Fortunately, it’s only one of a handful of moments where Hawke allows himself to become a part of Bernstein’s story, and the subtle touch pays off by hinting at the broader significance of the pianist’s sensibility outside of the music community. On the whole, by ceding control to his subject, Hawke makes a persuasive case for Bernstein’s guru-like outlook on the value of finding personal gratification in art above all else.
Offering deep reflections at every turn, Bernstein could have easily been a character in Linklater’s “Waking Life,” and singlehandedly carries the movie with his insights. This wise choice takes “Seymour” away from the realm of a vanity project and allows it to become a poignant guide to life. “The real essence of who we are resides in our talent,” Bernstein says, explaining his passion for enhancing its possibilities in his disciples. But Bernstein also shows a remarkable flair for the delicacies of craftsmanship, offering his treatise on the value of measured breathing and carefully guiding his students’ posture. The perception is that his art has shifted from the process of performing great work to the strengthening of its creation in others.
Bernstein’s genial, unassuming presence is a statement unto itself. At one point, he delves into the way that personality radiates from classical compositions, providing an amusing demonstration of the masculine overstatements found in Beethoven. Bernstein’s own subdued compositions (published over the decades) provide an elegant contrast. As the movie wanders through his anecdotes and freewheeling observations, capturing him in the process of meticulous instruction, “Seymour” transforms into a manifesto on humility and nuance. Bernstein doesn’t just provide the movie with its topic but also its form: While Hakwe uses no fancy trickery, his subject’s face and tender delivery become a fascinating object of scrutiny — and admiration.
However, “Seymour” falls short of delving into the conditions of Bernstein’s private life, which seems amiss in a movie committed to such a personal focus. Living alone in the same apartment he has occupied for 57 years, Bernstein comes across as a lonely figure in spite of his insistence to the contrary. Nevertheless, the story of Bernstein’s professional experiences include a fascinating series of events, including his account of playing for troops in the Korean War. (The moment where he recalls death on the battlefield marks the only occasion where he drops the serene act and breaks into tears.)
“Seymour” culminates with tidbits from a private concert, organized by Hawke, where Bernstein performs before an audience for the first time in 35 years. Like the rest of the movie, the climax is understated, opening up pathways for contemplation rather than suggesting any grand takeaways. As Bernstein plays, Hawke cuts away to audience members from a wide spectrum of ages (including blink-and-you’ll-miss-them shots of Mark Ruffalo and entertainment lawyer John Sloss) transfixed by his performance. It’s here that the movie’s purpose unites with Bernstein’s abilities. The final takeaway is that nothing Bernstein says about the process of creating art can supplant the pleasures of experiencing it.
“Seymour: An Introduction” premiered this weekend at the Telluride Film Festival ahead of upcoming showings at the Toronto and New York film festivals. Sundance Selects will release the movie at an undetermined date.