Seymour, An Introduction is Ethan Hawke’s brilliant affirmation that at the best possible time when we most need it, the exciting and eternal universe of another individual may unexpectedly arrive and influence us to redirect ourselves onto a different path. It is on such paths we discover that we can evolve our potential in new and unexpected ways. This is perhaps one of Hawke’s greatest thematic revelations with his documentary about this former concert pianist, composer, writer, and master teacher Seymour Bernstein that screened at the 52nd New York Film Festival.
Hawke evokes the remembrance that individuals who achieve the ripe old age of 80 have the most to offer us about life’s experiences. The wisdom they’ve gained by trial and error, surviving and thriving decades in our culture as they have negotiated life’s traumas and ecstasies is priceless. Indeed, it can change how we think, how we feel, and how we apprehend our ourselves and our purpose in this culture. In this amazing documentary, Hawke is connecting us with his bond to Seymour Bernstein and we are the better for Hawke’s simple and unforced cinema verite in which he allows us to “hang out” with his cool friend. As Hawke has learned and been enlightened by this friendship, so he invites us to follow in his footsteps. It is an extraordinary first time documentary achievement about an incredible talent and philosopher. Who would have suspected we could be so engaged?
When Ethan Hawke met Seymour Bernstein at a gathering, he was immediately struck by the spiritual openness, candor, and soul beauty of this renowned former concert pianist, composer, and teacher who was still sporting joie de vivre and great good will in his old age. Hawke, at a point in his life when he was striving to widen his acting talent and stretch his wings to fly over new terrain, enjoyed discovering the profound friendship and philosophical wisdom Seymour offered. He asked questions; the replies were ageless and life changing. The chords of synchronicity ran deep between them and Hawke was continually uplifted and stirred by this heavenly musical artist and composer, something he indicated in the press conference after the film’s P & I screening at the 52nd New York Film Festival.
Drawn by Seymour’s vibrancy and the comfortable resonances between them, Hawke was convinced he had to make a documentary about Seymour Bernstein, but how? His wife encouraged him, and over a two year period, Hawke filmed. It was an unfolding of Seymour’s life, and artistry: his background, his concepts about life and talent, his teaching of master classes, his mentoring influence of students which included an interview with a NY Times journalist who took lessons from Seymour when he was a child.
To these vignettes, Hawke also shows us how Seymour lives (he has been in the same 1 bedroom apartment for 57 years and is a minimalist, not a materialist). Hawke reveals Seymour’s many friendships and his personal lifestyle, which embraces a monk-like solitude and thoughtful simplicity. At the conclusion of the documentary, Hawke even rewards the audience who appreciates Seymour’s friendship that the director has extended to us; he sets up a concert so that we might hear and see Seymour “in action.” All of what we have come to understand about Seymour Bernstein rises in this coup de grace, and the moment is an apotheosis. Magnificent. We see with clarity. And we understand viscerally how Seymour Bernstein has integrated his life with his art; it is exemplified in the love he demonstrates with all aspects of his being and is integrated through his musical talent.
Hawke edited the film selecting the most salient, candid, humorous, and natural of vignettes with and about Seymour. Thus, we have the pleasure of discovering this octogenarian creative in Hawke’s fascinating film as he, too, searches for the better part of himself and answers questions along the journey. It was a journey that was essentially unscripted and evolved from their synchronicity, a point that Hawke made in the press conference.
It was Hawke’s acute and perceptive decision to “let Seymour be.” Hawke allowed a fearless process of naturalism and intuition guided by Hawke’s knowledge of Seymour to evolve this engaging portrait. He took these risks and that made all the difference between an artificial piece and one that engages the emotions of the audience.
I enjoyed Hawke’s documentary because I fell in love with Seymour Bernstein. Hawke reveals that Seymour’s art is in the way he lives his life. His talent defines life and his life informs his art; they are one. He is an apt father figure and superb mentor of how to integrate life, one’s talent, and its evolution. In his demonstration of boundless energy he is one who inspires us to seek and bring forth what lies deep within which becomes our spiritual purpose in life above and beyond any “career” we might select during the process of finding ourselves.
As a writer I am rather tired of the crass commercialism, soul-less materialistic consumerism, and the sometime tragedy of how artists (writers, musicians, singers, actors, etc.), can be disabused of the meaning of their lives and “art” by a predatory Philistine class who, if allowed, devours artists for breakfast, lunch and dinner. To provide an alternate view of how commercialism isn’t necessarily always the “way to go,” that artistry (and film), may provide depth and inspiration and can still make money is another theme of this documentary that anyone who loves the arts and is frustrated by commercialism will appreciate.
At this time when economic strictures have been placed on the arts and when creatives are rising above to hone their craft despite the attempted limitations of the old paradigm of mainstream commercialism, Hawke’s themes and the questions he raises about art and the artist’s ability to make a living are important ones. Because these ideas carry such weight with Hawke and Seymour Bernstein, they have lifted their importance so that the audience may identify and appreciate their worth. In the film’s thoughtfulness the irony is that this film is more revelatory than other feature films scripted, hacked, fashioned, and twisted to “please” what is conjectured to be an audience, but pleases no audience because the work somehow lacks humanity and life. Go figure!
That is why I love this film. I respect how Hawke has carefully and without affected stylistic cinematography or “storytelling” portrayed Seymour, extending who he is openly to us. I especially love that Hawke’s admiration and appreciation of Seymour imbues the film. In the recognition of their dual artistry and their relationship symbiosis, Hawke has allowed Seymour to shine his reality and touch us with feeling and hope. By the end of the film, we understand that Seymour is not only Hawke’s friend, he has become ours as well. What a fitting mentor, a muse when the arts most need muses. We are fortunate that Ethan Hawke recognized the beauty and power of Seymour’s world and in this documentary allowed us to be touched by it.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B000H1RFKU]