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NYFF 2014: ‘Seymour: An Introduction’ offers a fleeting, intimate look at a beloved teacher

NYFF 2014: ‘Seymour: An Introduction’ offers a fleeting, intimate look at a beloved teacher

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Seymour: An Introduction
Directed by Ethan Hawke
USA, 2014

Seymour Bernstein might very well be the sweetest man alive. I’ve never met him, but Seymour: An Introduction, Ethan Hawke’s new documentary that chronicles a recent three-year period of Bernstein’s life, radiates with vibrancy, and creates the feeling that Bernstein is in the room with you. It depicts the man as a soft-spoken, endearing, genuine person who’s as genuinely passionate about life as he is music. He looks with glistening eyes into the camera, his features gentle and faded and the edges of the frame opaque, and talks with us, not at us. There’s something inexplicably beautiful about the way he gazes longingly into the camera, his eyes at once sharp yet soft, comfortably penetrative. He speaks softly, and the room seems to grow quiet around him, adjusting to his volume.

Everything about Bernstein has some degree of softness, from the way he speaks to the way he gently caresses piano keys (“not everything has to be played with passion,” he tells a student). Hawke captures a fleeting moment with impressive emollience. Bernstein is one of the most acclaimed American pianists of the last half-century, but he hasn’t played a concert in decades. Disillusioned and eventually ostracized by the careerist bent to the life of a professional musician (think of him as Llewyn Davis, but nicer), Bernstein abandoned his music career and has dedicated himself to teaching. Now a full-time teacher and mensch, Bernstein spends his days devoted to his pupils. He speaks at length about the importance of teaching children that music isn’t life, but rather a way of understanding life. He emphasizes craft as well as passion.

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Hawke’s documentary isn’t a biography of Bernstein as much as it is a brief, loving portrayal of the man and his passions. It feels like an open embrace, a hug from a new friend, in its unhesitant warmth. Hawke, who worked on the film on and off for three years, is admirably absent for most of the film. He pops up to explain why he chose to do a film about Bernstein (the pianist helped Hawke through a period of doubt in his artistic life), but he pretty much lets Bernstein speak for himself. And oh, how eloquently Bernstein speaks! Hawke put it aptly: “Seymour speaks in compete sentences, paragraphs, pages, with semi-colons.”

Formally, Seymour is an adequate documentary. It sounds good and the shots are pretty, and there are no serious pacing issues. It bears no singular look, à la an Oppenheimer or Wiseman film, and Hawke never really uses the camera to say anything, but Bernstein more than makes up for any lack of technical proficiency. We get plenty of wonderful scenes showing Bernstein play beautifully. His pale wrinkled hands, scrawled with veins like the lines on sheets of old paper, drift over the keys, as serein notes flow from the piano. He plays as if his body and soul are caught in an unseen slipstream, with purported ease (though there’s nothing easy about it). It’s not profound, but it doesn’t claim to be profound. As per the title (a riff on a J.D. Salinger story), Seymour offers an introduction to Seymour Bernstein. By the end you’ll probably want to know more about him. You’ll probably want to call him up and ask him to teach you piano, even if you have no desire to play piano.

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Bernstein is keen to share his senescent wisdom, but he never slips into elitist lecturing. He refuses to abet in any elitist superiority, and he teaches his pupils to love what they do. He’s that teacher you always hope to get in college–the rare one that actually cares.

– Greg Cwik

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