A Hunger for Documentaries

Mozartballs, Beethoven’s Hair (2005) and Ravel’s Brain (2000) comprise the quirkiest trilogy of films ever made on composers. Add Burnt Toast, a modern dress opera about the tragicomic aspects of love and marriage, and you have the current oeuvre of Rhombus Media’s most outrageous auteur, Larry Weinstein. His irreverent but scholarly approach to classical music has made him an important player in the worldwide performing arts doc scene.

Weinstein’s latest film, Mozartballs, is surely the wittiest entry in the sweepstakes of global programmes extolling the great composer on his 350th birthday. Wolfgang Bergmann, commissioning editor at ARTE/ZDF, approached the eminently personable Weinstein knowing that he would create a film with “a Canadian sense of humour.” Weinstein laughs as he clarifies, “he meant twisted humour, the kind I can deliver. Wolfgang realized that he would be facing a deluge of concerts, portraits and very straight biographies.”

Unlike these more conventional offerings, Mozartballs concentrates not on the man but on his modern acolytes. As usual, this sly auteur has hit on a path that no other director is likely to travel. Instead of recycling the well-known plot of Amadeus, Weinstein and his scriptwriter Thomas Wallner have found five contemporary individuals and an odd but successful Mozart-inspired confection to tell their tale of love and obsession.

Of all the great composers, it’s likely that non evokes bliss in more listeners than Mozart. His music is joyful, exuberant, playful and melodious; it seems to emanate from a celestial terrain. Need convincing? Franz Viehböck, the first Austrian astronaut, and his Russian cosmonaut colleagues actually devoured Mozart in outer space- in the form of the delightful mozartkugeln (mozartballs) beloved treat of middle European chocoholics.

Viehböck is one of the five characters in search of a composer in Weinstein’s Mozartballs. The others are just as unique. Konrad Rich, a retired Swiss schoolteacher and self-proclaimed Mozart lunatic, conducts personal pilgrimages to Vienna to visit the great man’s grave. David Cope, a contemporary composer and computer software designer, has developed a programme that creates scores in Mozart’s style. Not to be outdone, Steph Waller, a fifty-something ex-rock musician, doesn’t merely try to replicate the great man’s work: she insists that she is Mozart reincarnated. Her companion, Lynette Erwin, also of Stillwater, Oklahoma, is Steph’s perfect soul-mate, believing herself the reincarnation of Mozart’s great love Nancy Storace, for whom he composed the part of Susana in The Marriage of Figaro.

According to Wallner, “Larry and I deal with our protagonists like actors in a drama. We want to reveal who they are through their actions. It’s delightful to build up expectations and then reverse the situation, revealing much more about characters, with a depth that the audience didn’t anticipate.”

Steph and Lynette are initially seen decked out in 18th century apparel while filling up their tank at the local Love gas station. They seem absurd in that setting, but when the Mozartian duo travels to Vienna, they surprise and endear themselves to viewers. In an eerie scene, Steph visualizes Mozart’s death on the floor of a department store that has replaced his old apartment. Later, Steph and Lynette recreate the tearful final parting of Mozart and Nancy Storace as it may have occurred over three hundred years ago.

Cope, too, gradually reveals himself throughout the film. In Santa Cruz, California, Cope is professional while discussing his working methodology. Later, in Toronto, where Weinstein arranges for the composer to mount a recital of his computerized “new” Mozart scores one sees Cope passionately defend his practice to CBC interviewer Barbara Budd. Working with the Esprit orchestra brings out Cope’s deep love for classical music.

What’s extraordinary about Mozartballs’ direction is Weinstein’s empathy and sense of humour. Steph and Lynette are never caricatured nor are their opinions endorsed. Weinstein’s innate good taste and decorum also shines through in his treatment of Rich, clearly a troubled individual, who admits that Mozart has saved him from suicide.

The film could have satirized Rich, particularly when he makes a point of giving a specific amount of linden blossoms as a present, so that it will match the catalogue number (kirschel) of a musical masterpiece by Mozart. What could be more pedantic or, in Rich’s own phrase, lunatic? Yet Weinstein then includes a scene in which the landlady of Rich’s Viennese pensione admits to being touched by this outrageous but thoughtful gesture.

By portraying Mozart through a tasty modern sweet and motley crew of obsessed individuals, Weinstein runs the risk of not being taken seriously. Through a series of unpretentious but well-calculated scenes, he ends up doing the opposite. Seeing Viehböck and his Russian cohorts eating mozartballs in space, feeling Cope’s rapture at his computerized replication of a Mozart piece being performed and experiencing Steph and Lynette’s love at being “once again” in Vienna, one appreciates Mozart’s musical genius with a wry, but renewed, fervor.

While Mozartballs is a funny and ultimately moving tribute to a musical legend, it doesn’t break new ground. But Burnt Toast, Weinstein’s latest collaboration with writer and comedian Dan Redican, producer Matt Hornburg and composer Alexina Louie, certainly does. It incorporates black comedy, mime, puppetry, art house and silent film aesthetics into a distinctive and highly original piece. According to Redican, the creative team appreciated working with Weinstein, “because he isn’t precious about ideas. If something doesn’t go forward, it’s not a big deal for him. On the other hand, he can be definitive if he really wants something in.”

A comic (Redican) presents eight stages of love in Burnt Toast, introducing each sequence through a mimed bit of business involving an increasingly mangled piece of white bread. Cunning stories of thwarted romance are contrasted with even darker tales of ones that are successful. Brilliantly sung by such talented vocalists as Isabel Bayrakdarian, Russel Braun and Barbara Hannigan, the score by Louie is enlivened by Redican’s lyrics and the comical set pieces orchestrated by the team, under the directorial baton of Weinstein.

The scenario moves from “Attraction” to “Commitment,” through “Marriage” into “Disintegration,” concluding with the hilariously cynical meeting-up-with-your-ex dramatics of “Starting Over.” Stylistic coups abound in Burnt Toast, the most memorable being “Commitment,” acted in silent movie style by Liane Balaban and Bob Martin. This duo is just part of a large cast that includes Leah Pinsent, Colm Feore, Paul Gross, Sean Cullen, Colin Mochrie and Mark McKinney.

When asked about his recent successes with Burnt Toast and Mozartballs, Weinstein is refreshingly frank. “Every film is different. My first, Making Overtures, was a character piece and full of humour. So is my latest, Mozartballs. So maybe I haven’t progressed at all.”

Weinstein, along with many other figures involved in Canada’s cultural arts scene, is worried about the cutbacks in arts programming on the CBC. “Opening Night, which broadcast Burnt Toast andBeethoven’s Hair, is having its programming shrink from 42 hours to 11 next year. This is a flagship show for the arts, which wins awards here an internationally. When companies like the National Ballet and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra find it difficult to travel because of their tight budgets, at least arts programmes can show off our opera singers, dancers and musicians to the world. We need to put more money into Opening Night, updating it, not cutting it back.”

Asked about his own future, Weinstein is characteristically humourous but concerned. “It’s ironic, with retrospectives in Israel and the Czech Republic and at Hot Docs last year, that my voice is being heard more than ever. That voice, and others, may be muted or extinguished, perhaps, if CBC loses its funding.” The tall, dark haired auteur pauses, then gives a wry smile. “I have a list of forty ideas I’d like to do. I hope it’s the beginning of a new chapter in my career as opposed to the epilogue.”

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