For a quarter of a century, filmmaker and York alumnus Larry Weinstein (BFA ’80) has been in the vanguard. In a cultural environment dominated by pop music and celebrities, Weinstein has set new standards by directing and producing experimental documentaries on classical music and composers.
“Larry Weinstein is one of the founders of Rhombus Media, and what he has done in the past 25 years or so after he graduated from York University was to revolutionize the presentation of music films,” says Prof. Seth Feldman, who teaches in York’s Department of Film, Faculty of Fine Arts.
Right: Larry Weinstein
Weinstein’s films have been televised in more than 40 countries and screened at major festivals around the world. He has received many honours, including International Emmy and Gemini Awards, an Oscar nomination for Making Overtures – The Story of a Community Orchestra and a Louvre Classique en Images award for Solidarity Song: The Hanns Eisler Story. In 1998, he received an honorary doctorate from York.
On April 14-15, Weinstein will be recognized for his work yet again. This time, he will be honoured for his innovative approach to filmmaking at Trailblazers, an annual event taking place at MIPDOC, the international market for documentaries in Cannes, France. He is the only Canadian among the eight documentary makers from Europe, North America, Asia Pacific and Africa who will be feted.
The “trailblazers” were chosen by representatives of documentary associations and festivals (including Toronto’s HotDocs) for creativity; originality and risk-taking; and making a difference in the genre.
Weinstein has broken new ground with his films in many ways, says York’s Feldman. “When Rhombus began, films about classical music and its composers were a small and largely uninteresting niche in documentary filmmaking,” he says. In such films, filmmakers would simply point a camera at a stage during a concert performance or present a narrated biography of the composer in a standard way along with snippets of the composer’s music. “You wouldn’t lose much by listening to the whole thing on radio,” says Feldman.
The films of Weinstein and his Rhombus colleagues changed all that. They incorporated interesting stories that were often dramatized. “They have always tried to make their film visuals as interesting as the music,” says Feldman. “Even when they do shoot in concert halls and recording studios, those places are treated as film sets or locations.”
Left: A scene from Weinstein’s documentary, Beethoven’s Hair, in which the last days of the composer are depicted
These characteristics are seen in Weinstein’s films such as Ravel’s Brain, which chronicles the composer’s demise after he is afflicted by a neurological condition; Burnt Toast, a series of comic mini-operas; or Beethoven’s Hair, which traces the mysterious journey of a lock of hair cut from Beethoven’s corpse.
Weinstein often uses a type of cinema verité technique where subjects are followed and filmed with hand-held cameras. In Weinstein’s films, meticulous planning and attention to detail create an illusion that unscripted scenes are scripted, leading some in the industry to humorously quip that Weinstein has developed a hybrid technique, dubbed cinema Larrité.
It is a technique used in Mozartballs, the film that will be screened at the Trailblazers event. A light-hearted tribute, it tells the stories of a woman in Oklahoma, a retired Swiss teacher, a California computer-buff and an Austrian astronaut – who are in their individual ways obsessed or inspired by Mozart.
“Mozartballs is definitely character-based,” says Weinstein, who cites his passion for music and the characters whose stories he tells as one of the secrets of his success. “I love research,” he adds.
Weinstein’s interest in documentaries was instilled in him at York in courses taught by luminaries such as Professor Emeritus John Katz, who “chose very good films" for the class to study and Professor Emeritus Peter Harcourt, “who was so in love with European and Canadian cinema that I also got this appetite for it,” says Weinstein. “York allowed me to have creative freedom and to think in so many different directions. I realized later on that that became part of my own creative fabric.”
It was at York, too, where Weinstein met his wife, Mary Nikles (BA ’80) and two of his Rhombus partners, Niv Fichman and Barbara Willis-Sweete. They formed Rhombus Media in 1979 at the York University Film Department when Willis-Sweete and Fichman created Opus One, Number One, a documentary short that established the company’s musical direction. Weinstein joined them soon afterwards.
Right: Factory workers making the ball-shaped Mozart chocolates in Weinstein’s Mozartballs
The threesome and Sheena Macdonald (BA ’77), their Rhombus partner in charge of marketing and distribution, were all awarded honorary degrees by York in 1998. As a production company, Rhombus has also shared honours for The Red Violin (1998), which won an Academy Award for best original score, and the much-celebrated Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993), both directed by Quebec’s François Girard.
Recently, the group went through a period of introspection about their shared future. Decreasing financial support from governments and broadcasters, both in Canada and abroad, for arts programming has made it increasingly difficult to sustain their music-documentary focus. Some shifts in direction have resulted. Fichman will largely focus on feature films. Willis-Sweete will be turning her attention to a number of film and television genres. Weinstein is currently working on his first non-music film, Inside Hana’s Suitcase, a documentary about the Holocaust.
Though the partners are branching out, Rhombus will continue on as an entity: "We’ll still operate and collaborate under the Rhombus umbrella,” says Weinstein.
And, they are continuing ties to their alma mater. “They have been very generous with their time to York, the whole Rhombus group. We’re very grateful for what they’ve done to facilitate the participation of our students in the Canadian film scene,” says Feldman.
Weinstein co-hosted York’s “A Toast to York Film” last March and serves on the Faculty of Fine Arts Advisory Council. “It certainly excites me what we’re doing now with this idea of interdisciplinary arts,” says Weinstein about the project. “York has really become a little paradise for people who are creative.”
This story was written by Olena Wawryshyn, York communications officer.