The gifted actor Ethan Hawke, disoriented by a midlife crisis involving stage fright, met an elderly pianist at a dinner party. The classical musician, 87-year-old Seymour Bernstein, inspired Hawke with hopeful advice on art and life.
Hawke was so impressed that he made a documentary about Bernstein's life, "Seymour: An Introduction." In the film, Bernstein imparts his philosophy on music, performing, breathing and overcoming problems. Bernstein is shown talking with fellow mystical seekers and giving lessons to young idealistic piano students. Hawke and Bernstein are shown in the Los Angeles Times photo at left.
Bernstein's philosophy would make an inspirational self-help manual. He extols the virtues of practice, embracing fear and struggle, concentrating on the joy of music rather than technical failure, and making a commitment to become the best self possible.
The movie's title comes from one of J.D. Salinger's most philosophical, introspective pieces, "Seymour: An Introduction," the novella in which the Zen adherent Buddy Glass remembers the life of his gifted brother Seymour, whose tragic suicide was the subject of one of Salinger's best stories, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish."
Hawke's film has the flavor of Salinger's philosophical meditations on the Glass family, best fulfilled in "Franny and Zoey." I can imagine the earnest young Franny taking lessons from Bernstein, and asking him deep questions about the mysteries of our existence.
Bernstein, who now lives alone in a small Manhattan apartment and gives piano lessons, walked away from a career as a successful concert pianist when the performance anxiety grew unbearable. In conversations with one of his students, the New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman, Bernstein slowly reveals the emotional angst of his decision. Bernstein said he reached serenity and wisdom by channeling his creativity into his students.
The presence of Kimmelman touched a chord; a few years ago, I read Kimmelman's book in which he tells about returning to the piano as an adult. As the movie relates, Kimmelman as a child took lessons from Bernstein, but gave up music. The book discusses about how he returned to playing, and the movie shows the outcome of that decision, including a brief glimpse at Kimmelman receiving instruction from Bernstein.
The most stirring part of the movie are Bernstein's recollection of his days in the Army during the Korean War. He and a fellow soldier, a violinist, were called to give concerts for soldiers on the front lines of the war. Many of the soldiers had never heard classical music before, and Bernstein's memory of their joy, followed by the despair of their deaths, brought tears to Bernstein, and this viewer.
For the movie, Hawke persuaded Bernstein to return to performing, and he agreed to do a concert at the Steinway showroom in New York City. The stirring final scene shows Bernstein performing a Robert Schumann's Phantasie in C Major, Op. 17 (Last Movement), which he wrote for his wife, Clara, before they were married. Bernstein tells a touching story about Schumann's courtship of Clara.
As he plays, he gives commentary on the piece, which entrances his audience, including many young people. As Bernstein brings the music to its glorious conclusion, the open window behind him reveals night descending on the city, with walkers hurrying home and tourists in horse-drawn carriages passing by. One shadowy passer-by pauses to look through the window at Bernstein playing. The scene's cinematic magic is reminiscent of classic films that examined the lives of musicians.
Hawke, an actor who shifts from purely commercial movies to more aesthetically challenging projects, deserves praise for directing a film of such depth and humanism. Bernstein's life reflects the ennobling power of art and music, a cornerstone of civilization sadly often discounted these days.