Capelle and Composers: Day One

Staff April 30, 2008

For the San Francisco International’s 51st edition, has asked Marc Capelle to blog his thoughts on movies, music, and the films showing in the Festival.

Director Scott Hicks’ (Shine, No Reservations, Snow Falling on Cedars) documentary Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts is a very close-quartered and loving documentary, a visit into a year in the life of (arguably) America’s best known classical and film composer. In the course of the 115-minute doc, we watch Glass, his wife, siblings, kids, bohemian cohorts, directors (Woody Allen, Errol Morris, Martin Scorsese, Godfrey Reggio and his musical and score-production team, including, indie-fox wunderkid and noted composer on his own, assistant Nico Muhly, who is well profiled here) work on film scores, orchestras, operas, as well as some nice domestic scenes of Glass making pizzas from scratch and horse-playing and giving his two young kids belly farts.

Percussionist and Mills College lecturer William Winant, who has had music composed for him by everyone from John Cage to Sonic Youth, describes a composer as someone who gets up each day and writes music. At one point in "Glass," Hicks asks Philip Glass if he has any secrets. His response is as simple and true as Winant’s composer definition. "Secrets: I have one secret. You get up early in the morning and you work all day."

Taking that too literally you could jump to the conclusion that all you would need is a good alarm clock and a strong constitution to be a composer. While both do help, along with a sharp pencil a decent sense of pitch and some notation paper, Glass delves into something deeper in the film—where all those melodies rhythms and harmonies come from. He repeats and repeats again, (as a good minimalist should), the idea of an underground river of music that always flows. This, he says, is where he draws his music from.

Despite this methodical tapping into subterranean music-making water, Glass comes across as very matter of fact, blunt and clear-eyed on his role as an artist, composer, human—and indeed spiritual being. Not once, but twice in the film director Hicks focuses briefly on a messaged T-shirt resting against a chair in Glass’s home. The words on the shirt are the final stanza from Allen Ginsberg’s "Memory Gardens," an elegy for Jack Keruoac written the week after Keruoac’s death in 1969.

"Well, while I’m here I’ll
do the work-
and what’s the work?
to ease the pain of living.
Everything else, drunken

One other big hook in the film are the opening shots of Glass screaming and laughing his head off while riding in the front car of Coney Island’s Cyclone roller coaster. (Go drunken dumbshow!) As we watch him weave and holler we get his voiceover advice to those don’t care for his work—-"There’s a lot of music in the world, there’s Mozart, there’s the Beatles. You have my blessings go listen to something else, I don’t care." And then he screams again as the cyclone dips down once more.

P.S. the film also features one of the worst hoariest music knock knock jokes ever, as told by artist Chuck Close:

"Knock knock
Who’s there?
Knock knock
Who’s there?
Knock knock
Who’s there?
Knock knock…
Philip Glass."