Scott Hicks, who flirted with art-house cult status in the late 90s with his offerings Shine (1996) and Snow Falling on Cedars (1999), has remained pretty much under the radar for the better part of this decade. Aside from directing a documentary about INXS and one of Aaron Eckhart’s worst performances, Hicks has retained a low profile, eschewing offers to repeat the same emotional resonance that he helped formulate with Geoffrey Rush’s indelible performance in Shine.
Mr. Hicks’ latest effort is an altogether modest affair. For 18 months, starting in the summer of 2005, Hicks followed legendary modern composer Philip Glass nearly everywhere. The documentary is equal parts mundane and grandiose, with Hicks splicing everyday sequences -- Glass making pizza sauce, for instance -- with shots of his seminal worldwide performances in the middle of this decade. At first, Glass comes across as nothing more than the glorification of an old artist near the end of his career, beginning unassumingly enough with his annual ride on the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island and quickly covering his backstory. Along the way, Glass visits with Errol Morris and Godfrey Reggio, two directors raving about how fun it was to create films with Glass’ music. There’s even a scene where the haughty composer butts heads with Woody Allen while writing music for Cassandra’s Dream.
Hicks establishes early on Glass’ somewhat iconoclastic nature and brilliantly sets up events at the beginning of his documentary that will inevitably lead to a sort of catharsis near the end. Chekov’s famous pistol-in-the-drawing-room-in-act-one rule comes to mind -- in this case, it’s Glass’ somewhat long-suffering fourth wife, Holly Critchlow. It is interesting to note how well she reacts to his blatant neglect of her and their two young children, citing his great artistic achievements as justifications for his asinine behavior. To Hicks’ credit, he allows the tension between Mr. and Mrs. Glass to build up over the course of his documentary. Whereas a weaker talent would attempt a grand treatise on the incompatibility of artistic authenticity and familial duties, Hicks is content to let the natural chronological order of Glass’ disdain for his family take its toll.
A recurring theme throughout the film is Mr. Glass’ constant search for a religion that makes him feel good about himself. A personal relationship with Galek Rimpoche, weekly Qi-Gong lessons, Hindu statuary, and a nominal adherence to Judeo-Christian ethics paint Mr. Glass as a religious omnivore, not content to commit himself to one faith over the other — even when one or more of them stands in direct contradiction to the others. Qi-Gong or no Qi-Gong, Mr. Glass edges dangerously close to embodying what Sartre referred to as “bad faith.”
Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts begs one overwhelming question over and over: were Steve Reich and Terry Riley unavailable? Glass’ personal life does not manage to make up for the frank staleness and uninspiring self-gratification of his career over the past 15 years. One of the first lines of the documentary is a quote by Glass, where he insists that no one needs to listen to his music, that he does not make music for other people, and if people want to listen to other music, they should. All this adds up to a gigantic cop-out that plays itself to a logical conclusion by the end of the film.
Glass is a well-made documentary on a subject who inspires no poetry. It is a credit to Scott Hicks that he managed to make it as interesting as he did.