Credit: Alison O'Daniel
by Jesse Catherine Webber Featured Film Horizon Line

The Tuba Thieves — Alison O’Daniel

March 13, 2024

Almost every program description or review of Alison O’Daniel’s first feature, The Tuba Thieves, including now this one, begins by noting that it is largely not about tuba theft. The fact remains that the film, which premiered last year in Sundance’s NEXT section and will begin its North American release this weekend before playing as part of PBS’ Independent Lens in May, is titled The Tuba Thieves. Perhaps this playful bit of false advertising functions, in fact, as a decent marketing trick, but it also signals an intentional disconnect from convention; one that is more substantively carried out by the film.

For viewers who miss out on the supradiegetic ploy, the disconnect will nonetheless become quickly apparent. O’Daniel is, according to her website, “a d/Deaf visual artist and filmmaker who builds a visual, aural, and haptic vocabulary that reveals (or proposes) a politics of sound that exceeds the auditory.” Her website also includes a guide to open captioning, in which she gives the description Tilda Swinton’s character in Memoria delivers to a sound engineer of the noise vexing her as an example of a description that, though in the context of the film is a beautiful piece of plot development, would be far too distracting in a caption. She notes: “[it’s] one thing if your piece is about captioning and describing sound, and if it is, go for it, but if it isn’t…” That’s exactly what The Tuba Thieves is about.

The film’s opening montage serves as an orientation, not just spatially and thematically, but to its captions. Sometimes the language leans toward the evocative — “[GROWL OF MACHINERY]” accompanies a mechanical roar that does sound quite like a big cat — and sometimes is quite specific — a leaf blower is identified as producing noise at 95dB. “Indistinct dialogue” can, of course, refer not just to inaudible spoken dialogue, but to a performer signing with their back to the camera. The captions also occasionally describe the air quality, gesturing toward O’Daniel’s stated goal of developing haptic vocabulary alongside the visual and aural.

As the film builds, it is propelled far more by theme than narrative. Tubas stolen from public schools in Los Angeles are a part of this motivic accumulation, alongside accounts of the adjustments required to living near an airport as jet planes became more prevalent, recreations of famous musical performances that complicate the role of sound in music, and a few more character-based scenes starring Nyeisha Prince and Russell Harvard, the latter well known from There Will Be Blood, Causeway, and the first season of FX’s Fargo. Harvard’s character, Nature Boy, is introduced participating in a medical test not unlike an eye exam, with an audiologist asking him to identify spoken words both with and without the aid of lip reading. Nature Boy expresses frustration, not at the difficulty of the test, but at its roteness, having been presented with the same set of words since his childhood. His frustration manifests not just as anger, but as poetry. His rearrangement of the words as signs necessarily occurs visually, giving the performance some affinity with collage as well as poetry, or perhaps avant-garde film given the juxtaposition of images in time as apposed to space.

The film’s only significant employment of ostensible silence similarly plays with film convention. A sequence in which a performer signs a description of a montage before the montage plays out without sound might be similarly disorienting to hearing audiences as a poorly captioned scene would be to a d/Deaf or hard-of-hearing audience, but culminates in a sort of silent sound bridge as subtitles are reintroduced before the image of the narrator. The separation of the sound bridge from sound is shocking and beautiful in its simultaneous novelty and simplicity. “Ostensible silence” turns out to be the name of the game, as the sequence leads into a recreation of the first performance of John Cage’s “4’33.”” The juxtaposition playing on the prevailing misconception of Cage’s composition as one of silence, the scene is as full of both sounds and captions as any other in the film, and deftly returns Cage’s piece to his intention: not an example of silence, but a refutation, one so strong an audience member is driven to walk out of the concert hall. The footsteps and creaks of his flight become, of course, a part of the piece. In its closing moments, the film returns to this man and his failure to achieve silence. As an encapsulation of the film, we have an accessible example of the holistic reproduction of the portrayal of sound, image, and touch. Though few filmmakers or artists are likely to be as thoughtful or innovative in their consideration of these concerns as O’Daniel, many would do well to consider the lessons of her film, as her commitment to accessibility and the rigor and virtuosity of her art are not just compatible but inextricable.

DIRECTOR: Alison O’Daniel;  CAST: Nyeisha Prince, Russell Harvard;  DISTRIBUTOR: Open Captions;  IN THEATERS: March 15;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 31 min.