Brow Beat

Ethan Hawke’s Seymour Is the Anti-Whiplash

Seymour Bernstein in Seymour: An Introduction.

Sundance Selects

The movie Seymour: An Introduction, directed by Ethan Hawke, tells the story of Seymour Bernstein, a one-time world-renowned classical pianist who gave up performing at age 50 in order to live a simple and solitary life dedicated to his music. It is a quiet documentary, even as its subject is warm, grandfatherly, and delightful to spend time with. But the film also questions how we tend to think about the identity of a great musician. What’s the best way to teach music? How is a musician supposed to spend his life? What’s the measure of success? Seymour’s suggestions fly in the face of some of our dearest myths about the nature of artistry. In this sense, the film speaks directly to that other recent meditation on musicianship: Whiplash. Although one film is a documentary profile and the other a psychologically charged drama, both grapple with how musicians contend with greatness. And in the end, Seymour offers up a gentler, quieter model for how to wring drama from the pursuit of art.

Hawke focuses on the 87-year-old as an example of an artist who has an authentic relationship to his craft, apart from the demands of the audience or the outside world. Initially meeting Bernstein at a dinner party, Hawke felt comfortable enough to reveal that he was questioning his purpose as an actor and didn’t know what to do with his growing stage fright. Bernstein’s words of comfort aren’t what you usually hear from master performers: He thinks that most artists aren’t nervous enough.

Since ending his career as a performer, Bernstein has occupied himself by giving private lessons at his home and teaching master classes. Because much of the documentary focuses on his identity as a music teacher, Seymour feels at times like it is in direct conversation with Whiplash, with its enigmatic band teacher played by J.K. Simmons.

When set beside each other, Bernstein and Fletcher look like polar opposites. Whiplash flirts with the idea that a teacher should push a talented student, perhaps even maniacally, if the pressure might yield an extraordinary artist. Bernstein’s pedagogical approach is more relaxed sage. Dominance over his students has no purpose, nor does control. He sits back, rotund and penguin-like, as each of his students takes the bench. When he stops them or comments, it is without edge or ego. One of his characteristic gestures is a hand lightly placed on the inside of a student’s elbow, absent of any force. In one scene where he gives instruction on diaphragmatic breathing to a master class, Bernstein pauses before a young woman: “Do I have permission to touch you?” he inquires before placing a hand on her belly. Needless to say, Fletcher, all muscle and invective, has no use for that kind of quiet respect.

Or, for that matter, for that kind of patience. Whiplash represents musical growth as a matter of solitary practice, and, from the way it looks onscreen, practice involves playing the drums harder and faster. Improvement is linear and entirely physical. Seymour gives the lie to this athletic caricature. The first scene in the movie shows Bernstein describing his thought process as he practices. Honing a passage means slowing it down and thinking about it, “Let us shed our guilt concerning the use of the soft pedal” is one of his dicta. If Fletcher is all forte, Bernstein knows the place for pianissimo.

What Bernstein values the most is his solitude. For decades he has lived in the same one-room Manhattan apartment, dominated by his Steinway grand and the foldout couch he sleeps on. In one telling scene, he visualizes himself as living under “a translucent dome,” protected from the world of others, whose expectations, demands and criticisms he imagines as ravens, pecking at the walls of his shelter.

Bernstein’s ambivalence about succeeding as a performer is not without its troubles. When a former student, the critic and pianist Michael Kimmelman, asks him whether an artist of great talent has a responsibility to share his gifts, Bernstein gets notably miffed. “I’m hearing you, Michael,” he says. You can almost see Bernstein reevaluate Kimmelman, turning him into a raven above that translucent dome.

But the striking answer that Bernstein arrives at is one of amateurism. He ardently believes in being an amateur in the true sense: one who pursues an art for love. This isn’t a cop-out or a bow to mediocrity. Bernstein’s directive is to play for love of the music and to believe in the music even more than in the self. We see no such amateurism in Whiplash; in fact we see almost no love, be it romantic or musical. Rather, music is just a vehicle for the fulfillment of the ego. True to a young man’s dreams of fame and success in the arts, all is libidinal, hell-bent on conquest; and like the various versions of libido, all ends up as some form of self-regard.

So in some ways, Seymour is actually more narratively daring than Whiplash: It manages to dramatize the life of an artist while insisting that the goal of such a life is not perfection, mastery, or any sort of achievement at all. Where Whiplash is predicated on obsession with one’s potential and the drive to achieve, Seymour neatly sidesteps the whole problem. There’s no lack of seriousness or of commitment, but the drive is redirected. “I go to war for my art form,” Bernstein says. His commitment lacks the drama and athleticism of a teenager beating his hands raw at the drum kit, and it turns its back on the myth of the artist as hero. In place of those fantasies, Seymour suggests a way in which a musician’s art and life might not be at cross-purposes. That’s surely not as appealing as the Whiplash fantasy, but it may be a more revolutionary idea.