To some extent, Ethan Hawke has a foolproof head start with his first documentary film, Seymour: An Introduction, because of the very nature of his subject: Seymour Bernstein, a genius pianist whose ideas on creativity, craft, and performance Hawke admits reflect his own. When searching for the seed of a film project, it’s awfully helpful when that seed falls into your lap. As explained in the intro to a rare NYC public performance by the musician that’s included climactically in the film, Hawke serendipitously met Bernstein during a time of personal and professional self-questioning and was moved by the soft-spoken musician’s encouraging disposition. Months later, a film portrait emerged organically from their collaboration, one that is cinematographically unremarkable, but intimately engaged with spotlighting the man himself, which raises a question that’s worth asking of documentary portraiture: If Seymour: An Introduction is a warm, pleasant watch (and it is), at what point are we responding primarily to the subject himself rather than the movie conceived and directed by Ethan Hawke?
Of course, the easy answer would be to argue that, when compositional and aural expressiveness seems to be consciously eschewed, the editorial decisions of what to leave in, what to omit, and how to structure the surviving fragments become tantamount to the directorial vision behind the film. Nevertheless, Hawke complicates even this yardstick by giving Bernstein lengthy blocks of time to hold forth on a variety of topics: his work as a tutor for young pianists, his history as a performer both at Carnegie Hall and in American base camps abroad, his solitary personal life in a one-room apartment in Manhattan, his theories of mentorship and musical appreciation, and the subtle sonic disparities between different piano manufacturers. In ushering along the transitions from topic to topic, Hawke himself is occasionally heard off-screen asking questions—not exactly an elegant way of guiding things along, but notable nonetheless for the way in which it de-emphasizes the tricks of filmmaking in favor of chronicling Bernstein’s attentiveness and conversational dexterity.
Hawke’s concentration on Bernstein isn’t a betrayal of his own ego massaging, but an attempt to have a soul-bearing conversation.
Double Play, Gabe Klinger’s similarly easygoing two-hander about James Benning and Richard Linklater, is an instructive point of comparison here. Benning and Linklater are personalities more or less as pleasant as Bernstein, and Klinger lavishes an equal degree of attention on them, but his film is more willing to offer visuals that hint at thematic undercurrents, as well as nuanced montages that interrogate the relationship between past and present, lived reality and diegetic space. To recognize this greater degree of cinematic ambition isn’t a knock on Hawke as much as an indication of a key categorical difference: Klinger, a cinephile, is interested in extrapolating poetic synergies and historical resonances between his two filmmaker subjects, while Hawke, more openly self-therapeutic in his aims, is using the medium as a record that will allow him to get closer to a person, and thus, himself. Bernstein remarks at one point that “the most important thing a music teacher can do for his pupil is to inspire an emotional response not just to music, but to all aspects of life,” and it’s understandable how that’s an attractive sentiment for an actor, a vocation equally sourced from feelings.
To this end, Hawke’s occasional presence in the film—on the surface a possible tipoff to star vanity—actually illuminates a humbling transparency of intent. The filmmaker’s concentration on Bernstein isn’t a betrayal of his own ego massaging, but rather an attempt to have a genuine soul-bearing conversation. If that at times entails Bernstein taking emphasis completely away from the craft behind the film, it’s all the more moving a confirmation of Hawke’s modesty.