Ghost in the machine

If you aren't already familiar with the sound a Theremin makes, I'm not sure I can describe it to you. The Theremin was the first electronic musical instrument, and its eerie, plaintive squeal approximates a tone somewhere between a violin, a kazoo, and controlled microphone feedback.

Because it has one of the most distinctive sounds of any instrument ever created, even if the name doesn't ring a bell, you would definitely recognize the sound whenever you heard it--you probably just never thought it was actually an instrument, but some ghost in the machine. (The Beach Boys used its high-pitched vibrato in the refrain to "Good Vibrations," and it was a common addition to the soundtracks of 1950s sci-fi movies, like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet.)

The new documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey profiles the instrument's idiosyncratic inventor, Leon Theremin, a Russian emigre who in 1938 disappeared and was presumed dead. But it also concerns the historical importance of the Theremin itself, and the odd collection of people its spooky tones influenced. Theremin succeeds on the occasions when it concentrates on being a film of moods rather than facts. Some strikingly surreal images, inspired by its haunting soundtrack, betray what should be its true ethic: a free-form episode of "Twin Peaks" masquerading as a documentary. The film never fully takes that plunge, though, and consequently is not wholly satisfying as cinema. Yet the movie deserves some recognition, if only because it dares to tell the tale of a man and invention of such obscurity that the very notion of this film as a piece of entertainment is so gutsy and bizarre it catches you off-guard--you have to respect the love of weirdness that went into it.

In some ways, it comes as no surprise that the story of Leon Theremin (born Lev Sergeivich Termen) begins in the '20s, a uniquely paradoxical decade in American history. It was an era when scientific advancements were as astonishing as they were routine, when Prohibition and post-Victorian morality mixed with heavy drinking and free-spirited flapperism, when years of economic growth culminated in the Great Depression, and (perhaps most notably for Leon Theremin) when fads were the rule rather than the exception. No period in recent history was marked by the proliferation of more short-term trends, from flagpole sitting to the jitterbug.

Leon Theremin, a product of the time, bridged the gap between several of these competing worlds: contrary to the image of scientists as tousle-haired outcasts, he was a dapper genius, a popular society figure forever dressed in evening clothes even as he obsessed over the esoteric inter-relation of electronic science and music. (His invention was itself a musical paradox--a novelty item that only over time became clothed with the mantle of groundbreaking innovation.)

Yet although the 1920s was an ideal time to rise to prominence, it was an equally cruel and capricious period that let its stars drift quickly into the haze of memory. For those who knew the word "Theremin" at the time, the inventor and the craze caused by his machine have long since been delegated to just another fleeting curiosity, and ultimately consigned to an historical footnote. Despite all this, Theremin's following thrived and grew, producing devotees of his vision for the potential of electronic music: Robert Moog, later inventor of the Moog synthesizer; film composers Miklos Rozsa and Bernard Herrmann; Clara Rockmore, a Theremin virtuoso; and Beach Boys co-founder Brian Wilson all gave the Theremin credence by the use of it, and its inventor credit for revolutionizing modern musical form.

The Theremin, designed as an addition to the classical orchestra, actually was the first instrument to do what in the latter half of the 20th century we accept as commonplace--it doesn't make music mechanically (by blowing air, striking metal, or plucking strings), but by interrupting an electrical current. (Fans have called him "the prophet of the future of music" and "the father of the synthesizer.") Whether for good or bad, Leon Theremin paved the road that ushered in both trash disco and Philip Glass.

The instrument itself has a whacked-out appeal, but Professor Theremin's life outside of his invention probably could be the subject of a documentary on its own. When he met the young Clara Rockmore, she was a promising violin prodigy; he became her Svengali, swaying her to be the messenger of his musical creation. (He had already demonstrated the device to the delight of Lenin and Einstein.) In the 1930s, he created a controversy when he married a black ballerina, Lavina Williams. He was living with her when he was kidnaped from his Manhattan apartment in the middle of the night by foreign agents sent to "repatriate" him to Russia. After a stint in a Siberian prison camp (during which time he became "rehabilitated"), Theremin rose to prominence in the Soviet hierarchy, first developing electronic listening devices for the KGB, and later teaching music in Moscow.

Confronted with a subject ripe with a multitude of fascinating angles as well as historical significance, you might expect to find a film of importance, or at least great quirky originality. Unfortunately, Theremin has neither, at least not in significant quantities. There are some masterful surreal images, and a few linger after the movie ends: the gnarled hands of Clara while playing the Theremin (left hand positioned over a harp-shaped conductor, the right moving next to the vertical electrode like the wand of a spastic orchestra conductor), who appears to be only pretending to make music; Todd Rundgren playing an "air Theremin"; shots of Theremins, slightly askew, wafting through black air like angels of music; and Clara and Leon, reunited after 40 years apart, walking hand-in-hand down the street to the strains of the Beach Boys.

But easily the most memorable moment in the movie is the unforgettable interview with Brian Wilson. Wilson explains how fearful the sounds of the Theremin were for him as a child, and how adding it to "Good Vibrations" was something of a catharsis; and his observation that the music made by the Theremin has an unspoken sexual quality is one of the most insightful in the film. But his admiration for the Theremin is eclipsed by the fact that his brain is so obviously, catastrophically fried. (Wilson's narrative wanders frequently during the interview, no more humorously than the segment in which he says over and over that the Beach Boys' record label was Capitol.) It's both funny and sad watching him slur the Theremin's praises.

Moments like these are worthy of David Lynch or Luis Bunuel, but the problem with Theremin is that they come too infrequently to convey much of a common theme. It's as though director Steven M. Martin wasn't able to get his subjects to give as consistently freakish interviews as Wilson, so he ends up padding the film with extraneous moments that don't advance his narrative. Martin never approaches the kind of in-depth analysis and psychological examination that documentarian Terry Zwigoff did so magically in Crumb earlier this year. Theremin is simply too conventional to do justice to its unconventional topic. I kept wishing that Martin were more interested in creating a sense of thematic unity than just reflexively trucking out all the facts in linear fashion, trying to tie up every loose end for the sake of closure alone. (He goes so far as to include the completely irrelevant comment by a friend of Theremin's first wife who tells us--just in case we were curious--that Lavina died of food poisoning in Haiti in 1990.) As a result, the movie seems rushed to provide blanket coverage rather than make a few points thoughtfully--it's the Cliffs Notes version of Theremin's life and work.

Theremin could have been a much better movie if it had more fully developed the moods that the Theremin itself creates: ambiguous, supernatural, and otherworldly. Instead it becomes a prisoner of its conventions. Only when it occasionally breaks free of these constraints--and when it does, it can be wonderful--do you get a sense for the odd poignancy of Leon Theremin's life.

Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey. Orion Classics. Directed by Steven M. Martin. Opens November 15.

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