Scott Hicks, director of "Glass: A Portrait of Philip In Twelve Parts".  The documentary about famed composer Philip Glass will show today at Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley and at San Francisco's Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, with an additional showing at the Kabuki on Wednesday, April 30.  (Photo: Omar P.L. Moore/

Filmmaker Scott Hicks Plays A Spectrum of Complex Notes While Scaling An Unbreakable Glass Mountain of Musicianship

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

April 26, 2008 -- Day Three, the second full-day of the San Francisco International Film Festival  (April 24 through May 8, 2008)

SAN FRANCISCO -- California

Scott Hicks looks like a rock star, dare one say -- an ever-so-fleeting resemblance to Iggy Pop.  Perhaps that observation won't be pleasantly digested by the Ugandan-born Australian filmmaker from Adelaide, who has directed such films as last summer's "No Reservations", with Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart, Abigail Breslin and Patricia Clarkson.  In fact, Mr. Hicks is a complete 180 degrees from Mr. Pop -- which goes without saying -- and throughout this conversation the filmmaker engaged in numerous musings and permutations not about rock but about the life of one of music's great composers.  At the ongoing 51st San Francisco International Film Festival Mr. Hicks brings audiences into the world of legendary American music composer Philip Glass today at the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley (at 3 p.m.) and the Sundance Cinemas Kabuki in San Francisco (at 8:30 p.m.) with his feature documentary "Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts".

During the 18 months Mr. Hicks spent on and off filming Philip Glass on three continents for the documentary, the director, a friendly acquaintance of Mr. Glass for many years, frequently bumping into each other in their travels to their respective home countries -- thought nothing of saying yes to the opportunity to make the documentary, albeit with one caveat.  "Providing he opens the door," Mr. Hicks said yesterday during a conversation at the Kabuki Theater, where his film will be shown tonight.  "If he opens the door," Mr. Hicks continued, "and lets me into his life, then I'll do it.  But I'm not going to just follow him around and film him performing and get the public Philip -- I want to know more."  The director's proviso proved to be one that the composer could not refuse.  Mr. Glass, who for more than 40 years has been oblivious to what Mr. Hicks termed the "excoriating" reviews that have peppered Mr. Glass's remarkable career, is given a depth and complexity on screen that the director who followed him for the documentary said only scratched the surface.

And Mr. Hicks reiterated the no-muss, no-fuss aspect of Mr. Glass, a workaholic who is all about his music.  "Vanity and these sort of things are not really his central concerns, so he -- I'm not saying he's without ego -- he's not, you know, fortunately he has an ego.  But, you know, he's not, how can I -- the best way I can put it is this: when he saw the film, he said, 'I think you made a wonderful film.  I just wish it wasn't about me,' which is a very sort of Philip thing to say," said the director, who recalled another moment occurring just six weeks ago at the Adelaide Film Festival, where he and Mr. Glass attended the film's premiere Down Under.  Mr. Glass sat back, and after some thought said, "'you know, it's a bit like watching yourself shaving in a mirror but being forced to watch it all day long,'" remembered Mr. Hicks.  Philip Glass has an immense sense of humor and it emerges as Mr. Hicks recounts anecdotes about his documentary subject.  "'The thing is, you don't normally in life get the opportunity to sort of watch yourself walking away.  Well, Scott has fixed that for me now,'" Mr. Hicks said. 

As if to underlie Mr. Glass' self-detachment from his detractors, the composer, whose music compositions as far back as the 1960's were ridiculed and even despised in some critical circles in such mainstream publications as The New York Times, just doesn't seem to care less.  As Mr. Hicks would say on a couple of occasions during this conversation (and as is said during the film), Mr. Glass is interested in writing a piece of music, and not interested in the critical responses to what he has meticulously labored over.

"There's not a large streak of narcissism in Philip, shall we say.  And there are of course some things in the film that are quite raw for him and are difficult to watch and did cause him some concern, but, you know, he recognized it's my film and . . . these were the things that happened during the time that I was with him.  I wasn't the architect of what happened.  I was just the documenter," Mr. Hicks said.  And as audiences who attend the San Francisco International Film Festival will see, "Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts" looks at Mr. Glass in twelve-part harmony, or rather disharmony -- embodied in the many moments and intricacies of a complex life, with angles and tones of his relationships with the women in his life, his spiritual dimensions, his relentless drive, as well as his need to work almost constantly.  If one could speak directly to Philip Glass and say, "you are your job", one could fully expect Mr. Glass to respond, "it's not a job, it's work -- no, it's passion." 

Even as Scott Hicks spent time with Mr. Glass, who during the film became a big brother to the director, at least in some faint ways on screen, there were times that the composer perhaps understandably wouldn't go to the deeper recesses of his heart or into more sensitive discussions that off-camera Mr. Glass had little trouble disclosing to the filmmaker.  "Philip doesn't wear his emotions on his sleeves.  He's just not that sort of person.  I wouldn't say that he's overly guarded emotionally but he doesn't display publicly much great emotional responses or so -- but probably the most emotional he gets in the film is his response to hearing his Eighth Symphony for the first time, which was quite a profound moment for me to be in that situation of watching somebody witnessing their own work for the first time.  I found myself thinking, 'what if you could pull out a DVD and watch Mozart hearing The Magic Flute for the first time, for example, wouldn't we all want to see that?'  I thought, you know, 'maybe in years to come -- fifty years hence when none of us are here -- there will be people who will be able to pull out a DVD or whatever the technology is -- and see Philip Glass hearing his Eighth Symphony for the first time,'" said Mr. Hicks.

Mr. Hicks himself was first attuned to Mr. Glass in the early 1980's when the filmmaker's then-teenage son told him that he had to hear one of Mr. Glass's music pieces.  He accompanied his son to a midnight screening of the film "Koyaanisqatsi" and from there was introduced to Mr. Glass personally as a fan via Mr. Glass's manager, and over time formed a natural familiarity and acquaintance that sustained, transition into a friendship over the intervening years.  Mr. Glass had previously scored the music for "No Reservations" and had an uncredited appearance in a scene at a bistro in New York City, the place where Mr. Hicks's romance comedy was set.  The film was being made as the documentary was in its early stages of being made.  New York City is Mr. Glass's home, and he has another home in the upper northeastern part of the U.S., which audiences will see in Mr. Hicks's documentary.  The director, who will readily tell of his fanaticism for Mr. Glass's music, is also fascinated by the facets to Mr. Glass, how he "is able to work at that level of success so constantly and still manage to maintain family and have a spiritual life, and have friends and have enthusiasms about other things."

As he is speaking, Mr. Hicks is struck by a revelation.

"People kept saying to me -- I talked to distributors and broadcasters about the film -- and they'd say, 'what the conflict?'  And I'd say, 'well why does it have to be about conflict -- can't it be about integration?  Can't we have a film about someone who's actually got it all together, you know?'  And they're going, 'well, you know . . . '  What I discovered is that the things that Philip works to do and struggles to achieve in his life are the same things that we all do.  We're all struggling to find balance.  I mean, "Koyaanisqatsi" is a word that means 'life out of balance'.  And it's a part of the motif of the film -- how does this man manage to keep all of these things in balance?  I mean, the answer is, with great difficulty.  It's difficult for everybody, even if you're Philip Glass.  I just found that very touching that he's a very human person.  And that just made him greater in my eyes, really, than if he'd been you know, like a saint."

"Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts", plays today as part of the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival at the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley at 3 p.m., and the Sundance Cinemas Kabuki in San Francisco at 8:30 p.m.  The documentary also plays at the Kabuki on Wednesday, April 30 at 3 p.m.

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2008.  All Rights Reserved.


Home   Features   News   Movie Reviews  Audio Lounge  Awards Season  The Blog Reel  YouTube Reel  Extra Butter  The Dailies