Friday, September 21, 2007

An Injury to One

An Injury To One
Direcetd by Travis Wilkerson

I have a certain amount of class rage. I don’t have any complaints about my own life. Whatever hardships, pain, loss, troubles, indignities, and so on, that I might have endured, I regard as a natural part of human life, and a relatively privileged existence I’ve had, really, especially for one who would be considered most definitely underpriveleged in this culture. I feel lucky and always have. But I do have a certain amount of class rage.

What this film does is endorse my rage, pure and simple. I don’t think it is a spoiler to say that An Injury To One is about the murder of IWW activist Frank Little in Butte, Montana in 1917. Who did it? That’s what the film is about. And why they did it. And what else they did. And what that means.

What does it mean?

I don’t know. I don’t think there is a reason or a meaning for everything that happens to me, or for everything that I do, or, for anything else, necessarily. I do think that there are those who would rule us all, and don't mind what they do in order to achieve that. I love this film because it confirms just how serious all of this is, for me, more serious than my own rage. Whatever my own rage is.

An Injury to One takes me out of myself, just as looking up at a big sky full of stars takes me out of myself and into something bigger and more profound. The struggle for such pleasures to be contained in the context of a meaningful life for all is not a hopeless one. And this film reminds us, should we need it, of the penalties that can be paid by those who fight for it.

The story of Butte, Montana, of the Anaconda Mining Company, and of the Wobbly organizer Frank Little, is a telling account of a significant moment in American labor history. It is given flavor by the involvement of Dashiell Hammett as a Pinkerton detective in events related to Frank Little's murder and possibly in the murder itself. Clearly, there was some inspiration for Red Harvest here, if inspiration is the right word. The formal beauty of An Injury to One somehow transcends the despair that is intrinsic to its story. There is music by Will Oldham, Jim O'Rourke and others, contrubting to that formal beauty.

An Injury to One does not seem to be available commercially, except for a direct purchase from Icarus Films at $390 for a DVD or VHS recording. I was just lucky to have been curious enough to record it when it played on the Sundance Channel, last year, I believe, or, possibly 2005,

Tuesday, September 4, 2007


Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey
Director: Steven M. Martin

Somewhere early on in this amazing documentary, theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore was playing the famous instrument in the 1930s, when I began to hear Jimi Hendrix. And I saw the whole history of electronic music spiral through my imagination. Trombonist/guitarist Eddie Durham plugging his guitar into an amplifier so that he would not disappear in the fabulous textures of the Count Basie Orchestra. Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker and Les Paul. The electric guitarists of jazz, blues, rock and related musical genres. Hendrix. The Beatles and George Martin. Everything that came after that, including techno. trance, jungle, industrial music, electonica, hip-hop, trip-hop. And before them all, Léon Theremin. It gave me goose bumps.

What is amazing about this film, though, is the story of the man who invented the instrument named after himself. The film starts with him describing his memories of being born. The story doesn't get any more commonplace as it continues. Theremin invented the theremin, the "thereminvox," in 1919 in Russia, during the Russian Civil War. He found his way to the United States, where he patented his invention in 1928. He married a young African-American ballerina, Lavinia Williams, causing a huge scandal in his social circle in New York City. He was kidnapped out of his apartment in Manhattan by KGB agents in 1938 and taken back to the USSR, where he remained for many years. At first he was imprisoned, and later labored in a gold mine. He was "rehabilitated" in 1955. He invented the first ever bugging device for the Soviet Union, and was awarded its highest honor by Joseph Stalin. He invented the first motion detector for automated doors. He invented an early version of the burglar alarm. In 1991, he returned to the United States and was reunited with Clara Rockmore. He died in Moscow in 1993, aged 97.

Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey has lots of footage and still photographs of its subject, including material from his early days in New York, with the young Clara Rockmore playing a theremin.

Clara & Léon

In fact, Clara Rockmore is a major figure in the documentary, linking the past to the future. Robert Moog is also an important figure in it, as the film shows how the theremin was adopted by film composers and electronic innovators like Moog. Later, Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys appears in the film's most invigorating sequence, explaining how the theremin became a crucial componet in the recording of "Good Vibrations," a seminal moment in pop culture history. The film also features Theremin's niece, Lydia Kavina, another theremin virtusoso whom Theremin himself trained.

Robert Moog describes how he was inspired as a teenager to build theremins of his own, using instructions found in a magazine; from there he went on to create the first synthesizer, and to make a significant contribution to the evolution of electronic music. Also, the film shows scenes from films such as Spellbound, The Lost Weekend and The Day the Eart Stood Still, in which the theremin was used to great effect. And it leaves no doubt that the revolution in music from acoustic to electronic that characterized the second half of the twentieth century began with this strange and fascinating man.

The film creates an impression of Léon Theremin the man as half mad scientist and half egomaniacal, driven artiste. Scenes towards the end of the film, showing his reunion with Clara Rockmore, are poignant in spite of the fact that Léon was apparently kind of a jerk. It is Clara who really wins the heart of the viewer, and anchors the story in terms of both its narrative and its emtional arc. She is just fabulous.