Counterpoint: Three Movies, a Book and an Old Photograph

By Don DeLillo


The first film begins with a scene that lasts some forty seconds, a distant figure in a glacial landscape, alone with a pack of wailing dogs.

Then the scene becomes a crowded enclosure, an igloo, night, maybe a dozen adults and several small children, with oil lamps lighting the face of a boy named Atanarjuat, three months old.

There are many tight shots of people’s faces in the film- individuals in brief separation from the enveloping world of ice and sky. Midway through, Atanarjuat, now a grown man, is running for his life. Three men are in pursuit, armed with spears and knives. The fleeing man is naked, filmed at a distance, then in close-up, then wide-angle from above as he runs on rocky shoreline and across the sea ice, bloody and freezing, and this is the remarkably stark heart of The Fast Runner, the contemporary film version of a five-hundred-year-old Inuit legend, passed orally through the generations.

The second film begins in near monochrome, with a figure approaching from the deep distance across a vast expanse of ice.

He is not Atanarjuat, the naked runner, but Glenn Gould, the classical pianist.

Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould is a ninety-three-minute movie, each independent episode, or variation, preceded by a title. This is not a documentary. There is an actor playing Gould but there are also interviews with people who knew him, including the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, and these individuals serve as counterweight to the intentional lightness of the film, a disembodied quality that issues from the episodic scheme and elusive subject.

The film shows us an intense and humorous man, his mind and body flooded with music, his hands in motion (in fingerless gloves at times) even when he is nowhere near a piano. He is a Canadian, of course, emotionally engaged with the rigorous north. This is a film of distances. The artist is an adept of solitude living at the edge of that psychic immensity, the otherworld of ice and time and wintry introspection.

This is also a movie about sound. In a busy diner, there are voices in layers and zones, some folded over others, in counterpoint, and there is music throughout, or sounds arranged in time, coming from radios, phonographs, a chamber group, and studio playback. People speak to others from a distance, into telephones and microphones. There are footsteps, applause, the screek of tapes rewinding. People in interviews speak French, English, and accented English, and Gould interviews himself, pointing out that the relationship of audience to artist is one to zero.

He is the remote artist, the one of elliptic disposition, leading a life, Menuhin says, to the exclusion of the rest of the world, wearing layers of clothing in dead of summer, avoiding the touch of others. He is also a performing artist who stops performing at the age of thirty-one, becoming involved with the technology of recorded music.

Several episodes in the movie seem forcibly imposed, but then again, if the film were called Twenty Nine Short Films About Glenn Gould, we’d lose the title’s resonating link to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which number thirty-two, counting theme and reprise.

There is an eccentric clarity to the movie and, always, something stirring in the distance. This is Glenn Gould himself. In an enterprise less responsive to its subject, the writer and director would attempt to compress the distance, find some trace of the tangible man, something familiar to us all, a subplot concerning his inner rage, his will toward total control, his sexual persona, a sense of the man’s paranoia and hypochondria, his roster of doctors and medications, the obsessive readings he did of his blood pressure and pulse rate- whatever ravel of terror might coexist with the high designs of the spectral artist.

This does not happen here, to the film’s credit and effectiveness. Here is the artist in idiosyncrasy and seclusion. It is his film on his terms, even if made by others, eleven years after his death. We don’t have to know everything about the man. Less-than-everything may be the man.

In the novels of Thomas Bernhard, the human mind in isolation is the final spiraling subject. Trained as a musician, he imagines in The Loser that Glenn Gould is a friend of his, a fellow student under Horowitz and a man so compulsively preoccupied with his art that this quality must inevitably destroy him. It has to be understood that Bernhard himself writes a prose so unrelenting in its intensity toward a fixed idea that it sometimes approaches a level of self- destructive delirium. He is frequently funny at this level.

The Glenn Gould of the novel is not the same man one sees in Thirty Two Short Films. He is robust and occasionally loutish, hurling a champagne bottle at a piece of sculpture. Bernhard insists that his Glenn Gould is more interesting than the phantom figure so widely admired.

But to what extent is Bernhard himself speaking to the reader? The narrator, who is nameless, maintains in the course of his book-length monologue that Gould’s interpretation of the Goldberg Variations is to blame for the suicide of their mutual friend, Wertheimer. Not only Wertheimer’s death but also Wertheimer’s life, much of it disastrous, can be traced to Glenn Gould’s genius, one day in Salzburg, in the service of Bach. Wertheimer is the loser of the book’s title.

“If Wertheimer hadn’t walked past room thirty-three on the second floor of the Mozarteum twenty-eight years ago, precisely at four in the afternoon, he wouldn’t have hanged himself twenty-eight years later . . . Wertheimer’s fate was to have walked past room thirty- three in the Mozarteum at the precise moment when Glenn Gould was playing the so-called aria in that room. Regarding this event Wertheimer reported to me that he stopped at the door of room thirty- three, listening to Glenn play until the end of the aria. . . In 1953 Glenn Gould destroyed Wertheimer”

This is what genius does. It shrinks the will of others. But it can also produce an odd wistfulness on the part of an admirer, a yearning to blend environments. Bernhard refers to the pianist most frequently as Glenn, and he works a transference, lesser musician to greater. He alludes to Glenn’s lung disease, but in fact it was Bernhard who suffered gravely from this condition. In the novel, Glenn dies at fifty-one (instead of fifty), maybe because Bernhard turned fifty-one the year Glenn died.

There are shadings of identity among author, narrator, and character. There is the doubling of Bernhard/Gould and also the split between Bernhard the pianist and Bernhard the novelist.

But where is the novelist? He is sitting in a room in Vienna or Salzburg writing lines for a narrator who is not him, but is him, but isn’t. In the end the narrator is an uncredited actor playing Thomas Bernhard in much the same way that a flesh-and-blood actor plays Glenn Gould in Thirty Two Short Films.

I used to think I was one of ten people in the world who knew that Thelonious Monk’s middle name was Sphere. In the documentary film Straight No Chaser, Sphere is the third word spoken. The first is Thelonious. So is the second.

The words come after the music, an opening sequence that has Monk on stage—on his feet and spinning- as the band performs behind him. He wears a snug cap, Central Asian, and then hustles to the piano before the set ends without him.

Monk does this spin several times in the course of the film, a meditative whirl that may be a bop variation on mystical dervish dance. He wears a dozen hats- beret, fedora, plaid cap, skullcap, modified fez- and at the piano he sweats and gleams, most notably in the handsome high-contrast black-and-white segments, in which he sits in the phosphorescent foreground, with solid dark behind.

At one point he wears a hat in bed in his hotel room, sheets drawn up to his beard. This is somewhere in northern Europe and he is ordering room service from a waiter who happens to be in the room, writing down Monk’s puzzling request for chicken liver. The waiter can take action on chicken, he can execute an order for liver, but he can’t seem to place these items in the same edible context. Maybe it’s a language problem.

Monk uses language in an expressionistic manner, making speech sounds through much of the movie, levels of utterance that rarely glide above a mutter. Glenn Gould used to hum while he played. Monk hums while he talks. He is smart and complex but tends to regard speech as some weary subgenre of music. He has a funny exchange with one of his sidemen on technical matters involving G-flat. And when he is given a pen for signing autographs he makes an effort to employ a proper sheet of paper.

“I’ll do it etiquettely” he says.

There are other moments not so light in tone. He suffered periods of depression and deep introversion. There were periods when he’d pace a room for days before lapsing into exhaustion. He spent time in hospitals and his son remarks, “It’s a startling thing when you look your father in the eye and you know that he doesn’t exactly know who you are”

On film he spins, inscrutably, eyes shut, while the drummer plays behind him.

The filmmakers are not circumspect on the subject of Monk’s difficulties so much as they are faithful to their method, which is to collect archival footage, shoot new footage, and let the film spring directly from time, space, and chance, with a few interviews and old photographs to provide historical background.

This is jazz, after all, and the movie has the improvised and staticky look of late-fifties cinema, Cassavetes and Shadows, with Mingus on the sound track, or Robert Frank and Pull My Daisy, with Kerouac doing narration. This was the period of Monk’s emergence as a force in music, at the Five Spot in New York, and the film offers excerpts from nearly thirty tunes. Then there is Monk himself, at the piano, bobbing and stomping, an ecstatic in his natural state, under a spell, in disconnection.

Is there something of the north in Monk’s music? The word cool is not incidental to the era. His work has a self-contained quality. He composed nearly one hundred pieces of music, many becoming jazz classics, and his playing is spare and distant at times, oblique, free of hybrid influence- spaced notes, off notes, missing notes, notes in conflict, and then, after a pause, maybe a vibrant little leap, like a spike on the heart monitor.

He is making modern art, edgy and spattered, in the manner of Pollock or Godard.

Monk does full spins in a crowded airline terminal and again in a hotel room. He is the jazzman on perennial tour, dislocated in more ways than one, and these rotations imply a need to make his own geography. The world has collapsed to a single square meter of paved earth but it is spinning, still, and he is spinning with it.

In mid-film, in colour, there is a brief tight beautiful close-up of Monk at the piano. He is playing Crepuscule with Nellie, his face in profile showing a wispy whitish beard. He wears a pinkie ring the size of a walnut and one of his more solemn hats, a silky piece of headgear, midnight blue, suited to an aging Chinese sage.


Monk withdrew, mysteriously, not putting a hand to the keyboard, publicly or privately, in the six years before he died in 1982. Glenn Gould died later the same year, long after abandoning the concert stage, although he continued to record.


Thomas Bernhard writes, “I met Glenn on Monk’s Mountain”

Gould has been called the musical equivalent of Brando and Dean. He worked on the scores for a couple of films.

Bernhard’s fiction is anti-cinematic. There is almost nothing to see in his work. It is all personal history and tossing emotion, all voice- no faces, rooms, rainy days. There are references to streets and cities but no sense of place, and the novels I’ve read have no paragraphing, no divisions of text or accommodating space breaks. Bernhard’s prose has a rapid and clamorous pulse rate. The narrator delivers eloquent chronicles of misery, illness, madness, isolation, and death. There are points at which the narration amasses such compressed layering of loathing and self-loathing that it becomes rackingly comic. And weaving bleakly through it all is a sense of themes and patterns that ride recurringly in the mind.

Glenn Gould’s discomfort before an audience made him want to master the culture of the recording studio.

What did he say about this?

He said, “Technology has the capability to create a climate of anonymity”

He developed ideas about nonlinear radio and did a documentary called The Idea of North, in which five people speak in counterpoint about the power and isolation of remote Canada, one voice yielding to another and sometimes overlapping at length, with train rhythms and ambient noise adding texture to the appealing fugal quality of the piece.

Monk added texture in more immediate and startling ways. In clubs he sometimes began playing one tune and then switched to another, leaving his bass, horn, and drums marooned in space.

Bernhard was a solitary who knew many people. He never knew his father, however, and felt the sting of this predicament all his life. His work and public statements caused loud controversy and scandal. His farmhouse was off-limits- even, at times, to invited guests. His long-term companion was a woman thirty seven years older than he was. He did not marry, had no children. Why have children? What is a child? People who produce what is called a child, he said, are actually creating “a sweaty disgusting beer-bellied innkeeper or mass murderer . . . That’s whom they bring into the world”

Gould’s second recording of the Goldberg Variations was made twenty six years after his first rendition and is sombre and slower, far more contemplative. He is not only reimagining Bach but engaging in a form of corrective self-dialogue.

Monk wrote a tune called Introspection. Two minutes twelve seconds (or more, or less, depending on which recording you listen to). But what happens when Introspection develops a density that obliterates the world around it?

Gould in his coat, scarf, gloves, and touring cap, whatever the season. Monk in his astrakhans and white panamas.

Monk’s hats were famous. But when he stopped playing, he put away his hats. He’d stand in a room and grind his teeth, or stare at a wall, or walk from wall to wall, refusing to speak.

“Damage and deficit and malfunction of the central nervous system,” according to one doctor, and probably caused by long-term dependence on drugs.

Long before he retired from public life, there were periods of disturbance. At a club in Boston, he sat motionless at the piano, pressing the keys down, soundlessly, for such an unremitting length of time that his sidemen finally left the stage. He was hearing something they could not.

After a long silence he’d say, “Monk know, Monk know”

The prisoner is thrown into solitary. He is alone, confined, sequestered. This is the harshest punishment the state allows, short of outright execution.

Bernhard believed that his art depended on two things, his disease and his madness. He suffered from an abnormality of the immune system resulting in pulmonary problems that were complicated by a heart condition. This amounted to a long-running terminal illness, which he said he “cherished and exploited” in his work.

Where was his madness?

In his atlas of contempt, madness was a function of geography. To be Austrian was to carry an unsparing historical memory, a narrative of fascism and anti-Semitism that struck him as the moral equivalent of madness.

Between sets, in one city or another, Monk liked to go into the street and direct traffic for a while.

Glenn Gould said, “Isolation is the indispensable component of human happiness”

It was also, he thought, the only way for him to experience ecstasy. He travelled by train as far as northern Manitoba but never reached arctic Canada, his idea of north, because he feared flying and was unwilling or unable to travel long distances by boat.

In The Fast Runner, Atanarjuat, racing, naked, is a man reacting to a primal danger; there are other men who want to kill him. But he may also resemble an individual trying to re-established his sense of isolation, his natural place in the landscape. Life in the winter dwelling built of snow blocks gets crowded and complicated, and even introspection becomes a group dynamic. The man is running, eyes wild, into the arctic sky.

The Greek and Latin roots of the word ecstasy include a sense of terror, derangement, displacement.

In a documentary film, Gould performs the Goldberg Variations in a studio, curled on his low bench, the camera at times barely locating his head between the piano’s raised lid and the lid stick. His mother played the piano often when she was pregnant and here he is a near foetal presence- the foetus as genius. He is shot from high angle and low, this side and that, the camera tight on his hands and then his face as he hums and sings and seems to chatter, conducting occasionally with his free hand. It isn’t until the reprise, the last bare minutes, head at keyboard level, body subdued, that he begins to detach himself from the audio devices and image gathering, melting into the music, into Bach and into Gould.

Some people thought Monk had a regal bearing. Others saw a large black man who stood so impenetrably still in a room, behind dark glasses with bamboo rims, outside every conversational lure, that they took him to be blind, or mute, or simply intimidating.

In his last will, Bernhard cut off an entire country, his own, stipulating that “nothing I published during my lifetime, or any of my papers wherever they may be after my death, or anything I wrote in whatever form, shall be produced, printed, or even just recited within the borders of the Austrian state . . . ”

This includes scrawled words on scraps of paper.

In Delaware, Monk was arrested and beaten by police for entering a segregated motel and asking for a drink of water.

Glenn’s family name was originally Gold. He was nine years old when the name was changed and he never discussed it, apparently, with anyone.

When Thomas Bernhard was a child, he liked to play dead. It suited him to scare his mother. Later he would write extensively for theatre and in some ways tried to organize his life (and death) as pieces of performance art.

The idea of eating frightened Gould. So at times did the idea of people, being trapped with others, talking to them, dealing with them. At the same time, he pointed out, he had “certain exhibitionist tendencies” and liked to appear on TV wearing comic outfits and speaking in funny accents to ridicule various figures in the music world.

One of these figures was Vladimir Horowitz, his fictional teacher in Salzburg in Bernhard’s novel.

In older cultures, the solitary is a malignant figure. He threatens the wellbeing of the group. But we know him because we encounter him, in ourselves and others. He lives in counterpoint, a figure in the faint distance. This is who he is, lastingly alone.

There is an element in The Fast Runner that seems responsive to the nature of film itself. This is the image of a lone figure in a hazardous landscape. The purest moments in film may be those of solitude and danger. During the end credits, footage appears, unexpectedly, of the cast and crew at work, men in sunglasses, cameras mounted on sleds, and the effect is a little heartbreaking. Here is the fiction exposed, the film craft in plain sight, and two levels of isolation are shattered, the character’s and the moviegoer’s both.

Bernhard writes of Gould: “He had barricaded himself in his house. For life. All our lives the three of us have shared the desire to barricade ourselves from the world. All three of us were born barricade fanatics”

The fictional Wertheimer is the third member of the barricade cult, and Monk makes four.

First there is the gradation of language, a sense of deepening threat played out in the terms themselves. Introspection, solitude, isolation, anxiety, phobia, depression, hallucination, schizophrenia. Then there are the human referents. He is free from convention; or there is something scanted in his humanity; or he is trapped in a modern context, bearing some taint of estrangement that makes him uneasy in the world; or it’s a result of upbringing maybe; or he’s a goddamn genius- leave him alone; or the matter is strictly clinical, a question of brain chemistry; or it’s a natural state in fact, some dread that lingers in the early brain, the snake brain, outside the slanted limits of all the things he has shored against it.

If we know the answer, then this is the question: How close to the self can we get without losing everything?

Monk’s Mountain, in Bernhard’s novel, is also called Suicide Mountain. Every week, three or four suicides.

“Their smashed remains on the street have always fascinated me and I personally (like Wertheimer by the way!) have often climbed or ridden the elevator to the top of Monk’s Mountain with the intention of hurling myself into the void, but I didn’t throw myself off (nor did Wertheimer!) Several times I had already prepared myself to jump (like Wertheimer!) but didn’t jump, like Wertheimer”

What Wertheimer did was put a rope around his neck and jump out of a tree.

There is a doubling between Gould and Bernhard that the novelist did not have to invent. In Thirty Two Short Films, Glenn speaks of his fear of dying. He does this, typically, on the telephone, standing in a public booth talking to a cousin about the occult bearing that certain numbers have on human affairs. When the digits comprising one’s age, a seven and a six, say (in Schönberg’s case), add up to thirteen, the implication is ominous. Schönberg died in fact at seventy six.

Gould, as he speaks, is about to turn forty-nine. He says into the phone, “Schönberg’s still talking to me”

This is the power of numbers to a consciousness that funnels the world endlessly inward. The world is a set of assumptions designed to accommodate one’s introversion. Gould would escape the baleful effects of that four and that nine but only technically. He suffered a stroke two days after turning fifty and died a week later.

Bernhard, his wishful soul mate of the keyboard, would eventually become Glenn’s numerological double, fixed to digits that total thirteen. He died later in the decade, two days after turning fifty eight.

In Bernhard’s novel, Glenn dies romantically, playing the Goldberg Variations, as if to balance the toll exacted by genius. One fictional suicide, Wertheimer; one fatal stroke, Glenn Gould.

Another victim of a stroke is seen on film as he lies in state at Saint Peter’s in New York, the jazz church, with mourners filing slowly past. Here is Thelonious Sphere Monk, stopped spinning at last.


A large photograph hangs on a wall in this room, where I work. It is a picture taken in 1953, black-and-white, showing a jazz group in performance at a club in Greenwich Village. For the inspired chronicler, this is a photograph that might easily elicit a book-length meditation on the men and their era. But let this bare rendering suffice:

Monk, foreground, hatless, in a striped suit, mouth open, hands on keyboard. At extreme left, Mingus, head down, lower face in shadow, hands working the strings of his bass. Deep background, Roy Haynes on drums, wide-eyed, face floating above the elevated cymbal. Just to his left, a mural of a reclining woman, naked, a figure out of the old bohemian Village. And far right, facing away from the group and looking out of the frame, white-suited, with sax, there is Charlie Parker, vivid as a blizzard in July.


It is the legend inserted above the saxophonist’s head that finally defines the photograph- two words handwritten on the print itself in chalky white letters that match the colour of Charlie Parker’s suit.

Bird lives.

This epitaph, written in chalk and paint on sidewalks and in subway tunnels after Bird died, at thirty-four, has the ancient emotional grain of a mouldering Roman wall inscription. It is a classic human cry against finality. What might we leave behind that will cling to earthly memory? The Bird graffiti was first employed by a Beat poet named Ted Joans, who himself died recently. Three of the men in the photograph are dead, all but Roy Haynes, still working in his late seventies, but all share an afterlife, of course, on compact disc, audiotape, and old vinyl, and in the minds and musical sensibilities of unnumbered people, alone, in a room, listening.

Where Glenn Gould lies, a small headstone is engraved with the marks of another kind of permanence, in granite – the first three measures of the theme from the Goldberg Variations.

Thomas Bernhard was buried in secret, in Vienna, one hour ahead of schedule, to secure the terms of his privacy.

Charles Mingus is pure mineral matter in the sacred river, the Ganges, his ashes scattered by his widow, before dawn, to ready the way for reincarnation.


At the end of Thirty Two Short Films, a figure moves across the permafrost, away from the camera and toward the icy horizon. The sky is slate blue and faded rose and the image is the idea of north.

Voyager 1 and 2 were launched in 1977, a pair of U. S. spacecraft now at the far frontier of the solar system, eight billion miles from Earth, the first man-made objects to enter deep space. Aboard, among other artefacts, is a recording of Glenn Gould playing a short prelude of Bach.

We are intelligent beings, versed in mathematics and capable of organizing a coherent sequence of sounds in time to produce a unified composition, called music, a form of art whose truth, craft, originality, and other indefinable properties bring a quality of transcendent delight, called beauty, to the mind and senses of the listener.

This is the message to those who are out there, at a distance only death can measure.

Don DeLillo has published novels, plays and essays.

The images of the Canadian high Arctic are by Lady Vervaine.