Documentary filmmaker Sam Green tumbled into a personal form of telling stories that combines imagery, presentation and music. (His traditional documentaries include 2003’s Oscar-nominated “The Weather Underground,” co-directed with the late Bill Siegel.) Green brings “The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller,” an hour-long look at the futurist’s life and local origins, with live accompaniment by Yo La Tengo to Thalia Hall on February 26.
Is “live documentary” your term of art, Sam?
It is the term that I use. I think I came up with it. I’ve never been able to come up with anything better! To me, it’s important that this work be connected to the documentary form and tradition. And then there’s “Live.” I like “expanded cinema” and “live cinema,” but neither has the doc angle.
Documentary as personal performative hallucination!
How many have you made and performed?
Four pieces total. “Utopia in Four Movements,” “Fuller,” “The Measure of All Things” (on the Guinness Book of Records) and “A Thousand Thoughts” (co-written with Joe Bini and with Kronos Quartet).
Is there a sweet sense of memory flow or modest panic when you anticipate performing a piece you haven’t done in a while?
It’s more like the former, they are old friends who I haven’t seen in a while.
How many do you have in rotation? What kind or amount of rehearsal does it take to get back to speed?
I have only two in rotation at the moment, “Fuller” and Kronos. The complicated thing here is that we are doing the Fuller show on Tuesday night in Chicago and then a Kronos show the next night in Champaign-Urbana. I’ve never done ‘em back-to-back before! We’ve screened the Fuller piece in New York City, London, L.A., Miami, Mexico City and a million other places. I feel like we could retire it once we’ve done it there. I don’t think we will. But we could.
I wonder if any musicians have performed back-to-back with Kronos and Yo La Tengo.
Talk about doing “Love Song” in Chicago.
Well, the important thing is finally doing “The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller“ in Chicago! I’ve wanted to make this show happen for years. Literally. There’s no other place as central to the story of Fuller. It would be like making a doc about Motown and not showing it in Detroit! That’s a little extreme, but it would be like making a doc about the Beatles and finally showing it in Liverpool. Fuller had very early and totally formative experiences here. He moved to Chicago to work for his father-in-law at a construction company. But then somebody bought the business and fired him. Then his daughter died. He was totally and utterly devastated. Went to the Lake Michigan shore to take his own life when he had an epiphany that changed his life. It’s part of the Fuller mythology. It’s the core of that, actually. He was going to drown himself when a voice told him he couldn’t take his own life, he had to dedicate himself to humanity instead. So right there, he decided to set off on a fifty-year experiment to see what a single person could do on behalf of all humankind.
He also launched at least one wild invention here.
Yeah, Chicago was also where Fuller debuted his fantastic Dymaxion Car at the Chicago World’s Fair. It was gonna change the world and history and the human race, but the car crashed and killed someone.
How can you define how a subject is suited to “live documentary”?
Well, that’s a good question. I’ve made four feature-length live documentaries at this point, and each one has been a further exploration of the form. When I first happened upon this weird notion of narrating a film in person and having a band perform a live score, I was smitten by the potential of it. If you think about it, huge images and great sound washing over you are the building blocks of the magic of cinema. Those are powerful tools. And each project has been me trying to figure out how exactly to use this form to its fullest. So, the easiest answer to your question is, is there a reason why it should be a live cinema piece? With a lot of films, there’s no real reason to use this form. There wouldn’t be much difference between it as a regular movie, or me making it a live cinema piece. I think the subject has to somehow lend itself to it. With this last piece I’ve made, “A Thousand Thoughts,” it’s a portrait of the Kronos Quartet, and so it makes perfect sense that you would want to experience their music in person. It’s infinitely more powerful and magical to be in a room with them when they are playing, as opposed to hearing a recording of them. So that piece is the most perfectly suited to the live form, but each project has had its own reasons. With “The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller,” Fuller himself was a performer. A big part of his renown came from his relentless touring and speaking around the country and around the world. And a big part of that was that he was an incredible speaker! He would talk for five hours or sometimes even eight hours straight. If you read his words on paper, it’s often slippery and you have no idea what he is really saying, but in person, there was magic in his charisma and his performance that deeply moved people. So doing this as a live piece is a tribute to that. And also, I took it on as a good challenge to tailor the piece everywhere we show it, to work in some local Fuller connections. It keeps it interesting. So no two screenings are alike.
How did you wind up making the first live doc?
I was making an experimental documentary about utopia. It was around 2008 and 2009. I filmed four different stories that were all about utopia in one way or another, and the waning of a certain utopian spirit and imagination in the west. I was very inspired by “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control” by Errol Morris, in which he profiles three people who all work with animals in one way or another, but he never explains why or what the connections are, it’s up to you as the audience to figure that out for yourself. I thought that was a really active and engaged kind of experience. So I put together this film with four stories about utopia, but no explanation as to what the connections were. In my mind it made perfect sense. It was an epic poem about the twentieth century and a waxing and waning of the utopian spirit. Only I showed a rough cut to people, and everyone said, this makes no sense at all! I was crushed. And stuck. I knew it needed some kind of explication, but I’d never made a film with voiceover or narration at all. In fact, that kind of thing was really frowned on when I was coming up. Voiceover films were the worst! So, while I was stuck, trying to figure out what the hell I’m gonna do with this film, Craig Baldwin, the genius and legendary godfather of Bay Area underground film, asked me to do a presentation about the project, show some clips and talk. I said, “Sure!” But that sounds kinda boring, so I’ll get my friend Dave Cerf to make some live music. It’ll be a super-fancy PowerPoint presentation. And that’s what we did. And I was really surprised because it worked just like I wanted the film to work. People got it. And they also stuck around after and talked. I filed that away. Then someone in Portland asked us to do that same presentation, and I said sure, but this time I made it fancier. And it worked again! At that point, I thought, I’ve never heard of anyone doing a live documentary before, but what the hell. Maybe this is the right form for this piece. We premiered the film, which was called “Utopia in Four Movements,” at Sundance. I had no idea what one could do with a live documentary beyond that, but we ended up touring all over the world for many years screening it. It was super-fun. And I was smitten with the form.
Are the two forms, the way you’ve taken it, so different that there would be any temptation to “adapt” them?
Huh. Another really good question. People sometimes ask, isn’t it crazy to have to work so hard touring all over with the film and in the end only thousands of people see it? If you put it on Netflix, you wouldn’t have to do any work, and millions of people would see it. All of this is true, but for me, I’d much rather have fewer people see it but have a more meaningful experience. These days, you can see a million great films at any given moment, night or day, and so the value of that experience has diminished. I’m trying to do something that is not part of that equation. That said, there is some temptation just to adapt the film to be a regular movie. However, I have noticed that certain things work in a live context that don’t work in a regular film, and vice versa. You can’t just film a live piece and have it magically work—Presto! That said, I am mulling over how to do this with “A Thousand Thoughts.” This one should somehow live on.
So what does the quicksilver, ephemeral character of performance do for fact-based storytelling?
Well, I think that performance brings immediacy and the power of being there to documentary. There’s a certain energy and kick that comes from being at a show that will never happen in the same way again. Something you cannot stream on Netflix or watch on YouTube. And add to that the kick of being in the same room with Yo La Tengo. All of this adds a certain energy and frisson to the experience.
Also, I might add, it’s a humble form. It’s a form that puts the vulnerability of the filmmaker front and center. It’s scary to get up in front of a huge crowd and say something. I think that comes through to audiences, even if they might not be aware of the fact.
You began this around the time “This American Life” was hitting its stride and before this moment’s vogue for podcasting. What’s different?
I guess people are more open to listening to someone tell you a story. I think the rise of TED Talks also happened around the same time, and that feels relevant, too. But more than anything, I think the fact that one can now watch almost any film at any time is the most important context in which to situation my work. That’s only been about eight-to-ten years that that has been a fact. Think about it, that was never the case before. A long time ago you had to catch a film in a theater. After that it was gone, sometimes forever. Then you could rent movies. But remember, a lot of films were impossible to find, plus you had to go to the Blockbuster and actually rent it. Or wait for Netflix to send it in the mail. Now you really can see anything anytime. And that changes how we value and we experience films. I’m doing the exact opposite of all that. This is ephemeral, it will never be experienced the same way twice—you can’t stream it or download it—you have to be there. We will travel hundreds of miles and create this experience just for you. After that, it will only live on in the memories of people who were there. That’s magic. And that’s also radical.
Is it just a different way of presenting or understanding “Truth,” to be playful with the word in a True/False Fest fashion?
I think it’s a truer version of truth, if that makes sense. The live cinema form is closer to how we experience our lives and the world around us. It is all ephemeral in the end. And it is all subjective and provisional. The live cinema form wears all of that on its sleeve.
Sam Green and Yo La Tengo perform two shows of “The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller” Tuesday, February 26 at Thalia Hall, 1807 South Allport, (312)526-3851. The 7pm show is sold out, but tickets are available for 10pm.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.