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Most contemporary Hollywood movies are so formulaic that their plots can be gleaned from the credit sequences, but occasionally there’s a film that offers genuine surprises. Such a film is writer/director Steven M. Martin’s Theremin, a terse thriller whose plot elements include the KGB, a pioneering Harlem ballet troupe, and the Beach Boys. By the way, it’s a documentary.

Few Americans have heard of Leon Theremin, but many have heard the instrument that bears his name, a box that is played without being touched and sounds a bit like an electric kazoo. Most likely, they’ve encountered its eerie sound the same way Martin first did, on the soundtrack of such ’50s films as The Day the Earth Stood Still. Ironically, while his innovative electronic instrument was being used to conjure creepiness in such Cold War parables, Theremin was a real victim of that conflict. The Russian-born inventor, who arrived in New York in the ’20s, was kidnapped by Soviet agents in 1938 and soon after was presumed dead by his American wife, friends, and admirers.

Martin has structured his film like a mystery, judiciously unveiling each detail of Theremin’s life for maximum surprise, so I won’t say what happened to him next. Indeed, Theremin himself didn’t like to talk about these things, so the film is frustratingly sketchy on some points. What Martin has managed to reconstruct, however, is wilder in its way than any rock documentary you could imagine.

Part of the time, Theremin is a rock documentary. It spends most of its time with two of the Russian pioneer’s disciples, performer Clara Rockmore and musical inventor Robert Moog, who as a teen-ager started making theremins from the instructions in a hobbyist magazine and went on to invent a synthesizer that bears his own name. (It may be due to the conflict between these two that every upscale ’50s American household didn’t have its own theremin; the instrument lost one shot at mass production because Rockmore refused to endorse a version of it that would have been called a “Moog Theremin.”) While Moog built on Theremin’s breakthrough to the point that he’s widely considered the father of the synthesizer, Rockmore has stayed faithful—and obscure. Based on the examples offered here, however, she seems the most proficient performer on the instrument, which generates sound through the dis-

turbance of magnetic fields.

The next flurry of interest in the theremin came in the mid-’60s, when ambitious rock composers started looking for new timbres. Before the Beatles used a Moog for “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the Beach Boys took the theremin to the top of the charts with “Good Vibrations.” The rambling comments of Brian Wilson offer more insight into his own mental state than into the history of the theremin, but the interview does reveal how far the instrument traveled from the avant-garde Manhattan demimonde into which it was first introduced. “Good Vibrations” also provides an illustration of how the very notion of weirdness went from scary in the ’50s to groovy in the ’60s—as well as a rhapsodic musical counterpoint for the film’s poignant final scene.

From Lenin to Todd Rundgren, bug-eyed-monster flicks to trippy pop-rock, American racism to Soviet totalitarianism, Theremin’s mode is kaleidoscopic. It’s both biography and social history, both trivial and monumental. With a touch as deft as its story is evocative, the film demonstrates that taking a second look at history’s footnotes can be a lot of fun—and a lot more than fun.

An art-house hit that failed to get a commercial booking in Washington, Theremin shows this weekend only at the American Film Institute: Friday at 6 and 7:45 p.m., Saturday at 6:45 p.m., and Sunday at 6:15 p.m. To accompany it, AFI has also scheduled screenings of some of the early films that used the theremin: The Day the Earth Stood Still, Lost Weekend, The Thing, and Spellbound. For more information, call (202) 785-4601.

Walter Hill has always made westerns, but the best of them—The Driver, The Warriors, Streets of Fire—have been set in an abstracted, hallucinatory present. When he actually time-travels to the decades between the Civil War and the turn of the century, the writer/director tends to get all stately and elegiac. That’s what he does with Wild Bill, submerging the film’s more entertainingly outrageous moments in sepia and slo-mo.

Adapted by Hill from several fictionalized accounts of its protagonist, Wild Bill Hickok, the film is far less weird than the sum of its oddball parts. It shows the younger Bill (Jeff Bridges) shooting a whiskey glass off a dog’s head, mistakenly blasting his own deputy during a chaotic street battle, having himself tied to a chair to face a wheelchair-bound challenger (Bruce Dern), and failing to make it on the vaudeville circuit back East with his pal Buffalo Bill (Keith Carradine). The film is a skein of flashbacks, and some of them are presented as the narcotic dreams that torment the tersely self-recriminating middle-aged Bill as he drowses in a Deadwood Gulch, S.D., opium den. Unfortunately, Hill fails to strike a balance between the sort of shoot-’em-up he can direct in his sleep and the fever-dream poetics that apparently come less naturally to him.

Sketching the legendary cowboy’s notorious past in the curt black-and-white vignettes that open the film, the director proves charmingly uninterested in narrative drive. After the main story kicks in, however, propulsion is still lacking. Losing his eyesight to glaucoma, Bill wanders through Deadwood aimlessly, almost encouraging inexperienced young avenger Jack McCall (David Arquette) to shoot him for leaving McCall’s mother Susannah (Diane Lane) years before. Ellen Barkin’s Calamity Jane, who maintains a more forgiving attitude toward Bill’s romantic unreliability, wants both to protect Bill and to take him to bed, but he’s not much interested in either life or sex. He’d rather play cards with his English pal Charles Prince (John Hurt) or smoke dope at the opium parlor, whose Chinese proprietors are protective of him even if they can’t understand a word he says.

It’s hard to fathom how the laconic Bill—or his directorial alter ego—abides the loquacious Charles, who has an underdeveloped version of the chronicler role from Unforgiven, or Jane, who Barkin plays as an overenthusiastic cowgirl sprite. As the sometime narrator, Charles gets off a few good lines, notably when he describes Deadwood as “like something out of the Bible…the part right before God gets angry.” He doesn’t tell us anything, however, that we can’t see for ourselves.

A not particularly articulate requiem for a gunslinger, Bill comes on like an epic but doesn’t feel like one; the fragmented early narrative presages the film’s uncohesiveness of tone. Intriguing but unsatisfying, Bill wavers between being a contemporary gangsta parable in period drag—Bill keeps shooting people for touching his hat—and a series of sketches for an anti-western that someone (probably not Walter Hill) may eventually make.