Bravo for Larry Weinstein’s quick-hit

The camera pans over a bed, the satin sheets bathed in the soft morning light. The beautiful Constance wakes gently from her slumber. The music that swells around her has a sinister quality; something feels not quite right. The camera moves to a shelf holding pictures of a couple in happy times. This domestic idyll is shattered by a cry from down the hall. Constance’s husband Trevor has discovered a crime so serious that its details must be sung, not spoken. “Toothpaste!” he bellows in a rich baritone. “You’ve left the cap off the toothpaste!”

Thus begins Toothpaste, a six-minute “domestic opera” directed by Larry Weinstein, composed by Alexina Louie, written by Dan Redican and performed by Barbara Hannigan and Mark McKinney. A celebrated soprano, Hannigan supplies her own voice while McKinney’s baritone is delivered by Doug MacNaughton. And in the interest of accuracy, I should also mention that Trevor’s first line in the libretto is “You’ve left the cap off the fucking toothpaste,” though Weinstein attempted to cover up the profanity with a sight gag. “We tried to make the toothpaste look like a Vietnamese brand,” he explains. “It’s actually called Phu King. I wanted to make it uncensorable.”

He laughs, “It didn’t work.”

F-word issues notwithstanding, Toothpaste has enjoyed an extraordinary career since making its debut on Bravo! four years ago, screening on channels all over the world and even appearing in a film series at the Louvre. Original in form and sweetly deranged in content, Toothpaste is the sort of film that probably shouldn’t exist. One major reason that it does is Bravo!FACT. For the last decade, the arts channel’s broad-minded funding program has enabled the creation of audacious shorts that draw on disciplines as diverse as dance, poetry, fine art, animation and, in the case of Toothpaste, opera. Weinstein’s short and its equally amusing sequel I Am Sooo Over You — the first in an upcoming hour-long domestic-opera package called Burnt Toast — screen as part of the Worldwide Short Film Festival’s Bravo!FACT retrospective.

“Toothpaste wouldn’t have happened without Bravo!FACT,” says Weinstein. Nor would Jesse Rosensweet’s prize-winning animated short The Stone of Folly, dance films directed by Veronica Tennant or At the Quinte Hotel, the Al Purdy tribute that marked Gord Downie’s acting debut. All were funded by the program, which was originally proposed when CHUM, trying to stave off a competing arts-channel bid by the CBC, promised to award 5 per cent of Bravo!’s annual gross revenue to independent productions. Says Bravo!FACT executive director Judy Gladstone, “That 5 per cent has grown from $500,000 to well over $2 million in the new year.”

Gladstone explains that the program was an effort to adapt MuchMusic’s VideoFACT model to something other than pop videos. “The idea was to give artists in different genres and disciplines the opportunity to have the exposure that musical artists get through music videos,” says Gladstone. The shorts air in a weekly half-hour program and during gaps in Bravo!’s schedule.

Despite the productions’ strict time limits (no more than six minutes) and modest budgets ($25,000 max, though Bravo!FACT encourages the participation of other funding bodies), the program has yielded an amazing bounty of adventurous new work by first-timers and veterans alike. Weinstein and his partners at Rhombus Media were awarded a grant for Toothpaste in the early days of the program but didn’t get around to making it until some years later. Bravo!FACT was the only one willing to back it.

For Weinstein, Toothpaste was an opportunity to take a break from his more serious-minded music docs like Ravel’s Brain. “I was really attracted to the idea of doing something comic,” he says. “Plus, it’s a dramatic piece and I’m a documentary filmmaker. Our composer, Alexina Louie, is a serious orchestral composer who’s very widely performed, but she’d never done comedy before. And here’s Dan Redican, who’s a great comic and a great comic writer but he’d certainly never worked in opera. We were all pushing the boundaries of what we normally do just with this little piece.”

“The idea sounded Kids in the Hall-ish to me,” says McKinney. “It’s an opera about people having this domestic spat, yet the passions are very, very large. Who knows how many wars have started by someone leaving the cap off the toothpaste? Maybe someone leaving the wood off the toothpaste gourd started the Hundred Years War.”

The film was made on the fly at the home of Rhombus partner Sheena Macdonald over the course of a weekend. McKinney had to keep his participation a secret. “At the time I was shooting a sitcom pilot in Los Angeles and I literally had to sneak out of the city because they would’ve sued me if they found out,” he says.

Toothpaste achieved such immediate popularity that Weinstein was soon asked to do more vignettes by European broadcasters. For the eight new shorts in Burnt Toast (to be broadcast this fall, first on CBC’s Opening Night, then on Bravo!, which again supplied funding), the Toothpaste team created new mini-operas starring the likes of Paul Gross, Colm Feore and Liane Balaban. Hannigan and McKinney return for I Am Sooo Over You, which portrays a supermarket encounter between Constance and Trevor with Seán Cullen contributing a hilarious performance as Charles, Constance’s new curly-haired beau.

Gladstone and Bravo!FACT are understandably pleased to see all that Toothpaste has wrought. “It has taken on a life of its own,” she says. “It’s creating new work — not just new film work but new opera, too.”

McKinney (whose sitcom Robson Arms debuted on CTV last week) will have another opportunity to discover what a Bravo!FACT short can lead to, since the program recently funded his own directorial debut.

“It’s a documentary short called I’m Sorry,” he says. “I went out and asked people if they thought they owed an apology to anyone. I got them to describe the circumstances and apologize to the camera. It wasn’t always easy to get people to stop but when they did, they usually had a story. Most people were like, ‘Oh fuck, thank god! Finally, someone asked!’ It really was extraordinary.”

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