‘The Tuba Thieves’ Review: The Real Meaning of Listening

by The Technical Blogs


To hear a tuba is to feel it. The vibrations pulse through your body, and its giant bell is even designed to make the air shudder a bit. A tuba is also much harder for a thief to pilfer than, say, a piccolo, or even a trumpet. Yet from 2011 to 2013, tubas started disappearing from high schools in Southern California, for no obvious reason and with no explanation.

The news of the tuba thefts formed a jumping-off point for the artist Alison O’Daniel, who used it as the central hub in a wheel with many spokes. The resulting film, “The Tuba Thieves,” is kind of a documentary — or at least, it has documentary elements. But there are re-creations and a dramatized story with fictionalized characters woven throughout as well, all exploring the role sound plays in our world, both for those who take it for granted and those to whom access is denied. O’Daniel, a visual artist who identifies as Deaf/Hard of Hearing, has a keen interest in sound as an integral element of human life, and “The Tuba Thieves” expands that query in many directions.

The result, admittedly, is not particularly easy to follow. “The Tuba Thieves” is not very interested in explaining itself; its connective tissue is an idea, an exploration, and it’s designed to be more absorbed than understood. But for the patient audience, it’s richly illuminating. The film is open captioned, so no matter how you see it, you’ll see descriptive text onscreen. Sometimes that text interprets sign language — in fact, the title credits are signed by a character, Nyke (Nyeisha Prince), and much of the film’s dialogue is in ASL. Sometimes the text describes sounds. And sometimes it’s a little cheeky; “[ANIMALS GROWL],” one caption reads, and then is immediately replaced by “[MACHINES GROWL],” with images to match them both.

Nyke, who is Deaf, is one of the film’s main recurring figures. Scenes with her father (Warren Snipe) and her partner, whom the film only calls Nature Boy (Russell Harvard), unpack her fears about becoming a parent — what if something happens to the baby, and she can’t hear it? — and the joy she takes in music. Another of the film’s characters is Geovanny (Geovanny Marroquin), a drum major at Centennial High School, from which tubas have been stolen; the theft affects the marching band’s performance as well as Geovanny’s life. Both Nyke and Geovanny are based on the actors’ lives, but you can clearly sense the truth coming through: that sound hearing is one thing, but listening is another.

Los Angeles and its sounds are pivotal to “The Tuba Thieves.” All kinds of noises, welcome or not, make it into the movie: the crackling of fires, the roar of traffic and, above all, the repeated sound of overhead airplanes, a constant background pollution for residents near the airport. In contrast, there’s silence, represented by a re-creation of the 1952 Woodstock, N.Y., premiere of John Cage’s infamous “4’33,” in which a pianist simply sits in front of the piano silently turning pages for four minutes and 33 seconds, opening and closing the keyboard lid to signal the beginning and ending of the piece’s three movements. Apparently irritated by the spectacle, a man leaves and stomps out into the woods, only to be captured by the sounds of nature around him.

Other elements exploring the meaning of hearing are woven throughout “The Tuba Thieves” (which, incidentally, never really explores the tuba thievery, nor does it aim to). The 1979 final punk show at San Francisco’s Deaf Club shows up, as does a surprise free 1984 show that Prince played at Gallaudet University, the nation’s only liberal arts university devoted to deaf people. They’re all driving toward a similar point: Listening means more than just hearing, and in fact doesn’t requiring hearing at all. But the sounds, the vibrations, the racket and clamor and buzz of everyday life are as important in their presence as in their absence. O’Daniel’s scrutiny of them is somehow rigorous and abstract, serious and playful, and provocative in a way that makes us take in the world differently.

The Tuba Thieves
Not Rated. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes. In theaters.


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