Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey

Salem Film Fest: So many docs, so little time


The weeklong all-documentary Salem Film Fest, running from March 6-13, has a great and remarkably diverse line-up of films, with 37 features and almost as many short subjects. I was able to see several of them last week and even if I can’t get back there in its last two days, will have a sizable checklist for future viewing choices.

I feel a little silly that before this year I was largely unaware of this supercool event that takes place in my hometown of Salem, Mass. and that is barely a half-hour’s drive from where I live now. It’s been gong on for seven years and during that whole time I was writing a book called “Documentary 101.” Actually, considering the 420-page ordeal, maybe it’s not that surprising. In conjunction with the festival I took a “Discovering Documentary” class taught by Erin Trahan, co-editor and publisher of the online film magazine, The Independent. An all-day class (at the Montserrat College of Art in neighboring Beverly) the week before was followed by an inclusive SFF full day pass on a Saturday accompanied by panel discussions etc. Any non-fiction film buffs in my neck of the woods take notice for next year, it was great! And as for the Salem Film Fest, what a first rate program, accompanied by a welcoming vibe, all centered on the town’s historic Essex St. pedestrian mall. Looks like March may be the new October for the Witch City when it comes to attracting attention…

Of the film’s I did see, the opening night presentation of “A Fragile Trust,” profiling the plagiarizing New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, was a treat. Filmmaker Samantha Grant was in attendance (as were most directors of the selected films, it seemed) and during the Q&A, one person compared it to Errol Moris’ Oscar-winning “The Fog of War” as a mea culpa coup of sorts. Robert McNamara’s defensive testimony in “Fog” of his dubious high-level role in escalating the Vietnam War may have more gravity. But Blair’s high-profile case, which caused an erosion of confidence in journalism at a time when traditional news could least afford it, is no small potatoes. Blair’s rampant ego, blended in with lingering mental health issues and substance abuse, led to a prominent scandal and his presence in the film as a less-than-reliable interviewee was fascinating stuff. (“Where does the illness stop and the gaming begin?” wondered one of the talking heads). A show of hands at the Q&A revealed about half thought the film made them at least somewhat sympathetic of Blair, while the other half were left with disdain. Another example of the engaging power of the documentary form, although I have to agree with my sister Pam, who I watched it with it with, Grant should tone down that cue-happy soundtrack music. If you get a chance, check out “A Fragile Trust” when it airs on PBS on May 5th.

On Saturday, I saw the charming “Tokyo Waka” by John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson, about the 20,000+ jungle crows that inhabit one of the world’s biggest cities. The poetic flow of this work reflected both the natural world’s interaction with the built environment and the Japanese people’s philosophy of everyday life as seen in relation to this enigmatic, iconic bird. Also got to check out the vibrant “Everybody Street” (directed by photojournalist-filmmaker Cheryl Dunn) about notable photographers who have worked the streets of New York City through the decades. Tellingly, most of the folks behind the camera (like Joel Meyerowitz, Jill Freedman, Bruce Davidson and the Serbian-born Boogie) are as least as fascinating as the diverse multitudes they take pictures of, and that’s saying something. Like “Waka” this is a sidelong portrait of a great city as a whole.


Among the entries I circled in the program for future viewing: “Dear Mr. Watterson” about the creator of the beloved Calvin and Hobbes comic strip; “Rich Hill”, a look at the de-population of large swatches of heartland America thru the example of one Missouri town; and relatedly, “The Human Scale”, Andreas Dalsgaard’s new film on the urban challenges facing a world where 80% of the population will be living in large cities by 2050. And as a fan of music docs, I hope to soon be seeing “Elektro Moskava” (pictured above) and it’s tale of Russia’s vital historical role in the development of electronic music. Sounds like it would make a great double feature with 1995’s “Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey” about Russian-born Leon Theremin who invented the self-named first electronic instrument. Theremin, who was the toast of Manhattan in the pre-war years, mysteriously disappeared (and rumored to be a kidnap victim of the KGB) before turning up a half-century later in Moscow, making a trip to NYC in his last years to be re-united with his protégé Clara Rockwell. I always sensed there were other stories where that came from.

You can still see the entire festival line-up at Happy viewing!

“Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film” is now available as an e-book in all formats for only $4.99, more details in next post.

“Documentary 101” sampler, Part Six


Now on sale as both a paperback and e-book: Also available from Amazon and other online book sellers.

“Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film” is a first-of-its-kind anthology, covering the entire spectrum of non-fiction film from 1895 to the present day. There are 101 full-length reviews of documentaries chosen for their aesthetic prominence and/or historical significance, followed by briefer entries on related titles. There are 325 total reviews and an informational appendix in its 418 pages.

gate heaven

The relocated deceased pets are given a final final-resting place at the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park run by Calvin Harberts and his family. His younger son, Danny, ranks above older brother Phillip due to his length of service. Danny is a soft-spoken, hippie-ish young man who plays guitar and is the sole occupant of a hilltop bungalow overlooking the park. He seems indifferently fated to inherit the family pet cemetery as he sits in his room surrounded by stereo equipment and a TV, talking up vague notions of love and rock ’n’ roll superstardom. In one well-known scene, he takes his electric guitar and his powerful amplifier outside, serenading the passed-on pets and the whole empty valley with some choice hard-rock riffs. Danny seems as dispossessed as any protagonist from a Kafka novel. It’s startling to realize how far Errol Morris has expanded from his base subject. “Gates of Heaven” is a film permeated with a certain kind of human fragility, the kind that lies just behind the veneer of people’s stoical everyday lives.
(Gates of Heaven, 1978)



Russian director Dziga Vertov, along with fellow countryman Sergei Eisenstein, did much to pioneer the development of film montage and subjective editing. His was a cerebral brand of filmmaking, encompassing as it did patriotic movies for the young Soviet Union as well as the methodology of elevating the “life-facts” of photographic observation into a wider realm using stylistic flourishes. Vertov cleverly uses the actual making of the movie as its own framing device and along the way uses frenzied jump cuts, subliminal dissolves, overlapping images and split screens with the utmost confidence. Vertov’s stature was eventually undermined by Josef Stalin’s iron-fisted rule. Vertov may have been a committed Marxist but Stalin was an even more committed dictator and the director did not fare well when film projects started to fall under the auspices of rigid planning committees. His considerable talents and boundless creative drive were not so much crushed as gradually marginalized.
(Man With a Movie Camera, 1929)



The haunting “voice” of the theremin, the first electronic musical device, wafted above a long stretch of the twentieth century and found its apotheosis as a creepy backdrop for Cold War-era science fiction and suspense movies, as well as on the Beach Boys’ optimistic pop gem “Good Vibrations.” Even more intriguing than the instrument’s sound is the life story of its enigmatic inventor, Russian émigré Leon Theremin. At the height of his fame, Theremin vanished from his swank New York penthouse amid speculation that the KGB had kidnapped him. He reappeared several decades later, living in Moscow. Director Steven M. Martin unearthed exceptional archival footage of Theremin’s early years when he was the toast of New York, playing Carnegie Hall and hosting grand parties at his Fifty-Fourth Street compound with paramour, Clara Rockwell, also a theremin virtuoso.
(Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, 1995)

sherman march
Ross McElwee was born in 1947, into an old-line Southern family from Charlotte, North Carolina. He attended Brown University in Rhode Island, where he was exposed to the socially conscious films of Frederick Wiseman. Since doing his graduate work at MIT (under the tutelage of master documentarian Richard Leacock), he’s been based in the Boston area. Under different circumstances, his first full-length film may have been a fine, straightforward doc on the notorious march to the sea by Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman. But, as film history would have it, his girlfriend dumped him just as the funding for the project was secured. Beset by self-recrimination over the break-up, McElwee headed south with something more than the siege of Atlanta on his mind. McElwee gets sidetracked over large stretches of the old Confederacy, training his camera lens on seemingly every available woman on his own path to the sea. What came out of all this was a very droll landmark in the annals of the personal film-essay style, taking below the Mason-Dixon Line the kind of cerebral romantic comedy that Woody Allen used to be famous for. But McElwee is canny enough to keep his would-be womanizing from becoming self-indulgent, and his occasional insights about the Civil War and more modern forms of annihilation keeps the interest level high despite the film’s long running time.
(Sherman’s March, 1987)