The annual Time-Based Art Festival (TBA) usually has at least one film-related event intermingled with all its dance, theater, art installations and various other programming. The 2012 edition of the festival is all set to knock it out of the park with this year's big film presentation, The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller. The program is a live documentary directed and performed by Sam Green, whose 2002 documentary The Weather Underground was nominated for an Academy Award.
For the Buckminster Fuller piece, Green has transformed himself into an MC of sorts for his own multimedia presentation. The show has him reflecting on the archival images and research he's gathered in real time, offering context about the life and times of his subject that couldn't be arrived at via the filmed materials alone. Musical three-piece Yo La Tengo serves as the third element in the mix, providing a live score, supporting and elevating Green's work.
The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller had its world premiere this past May at SFMOMA. Thanks to the NW Film Center and PICA's efforts, Portland's got it's dirty mitts on one of the first touring performances since the May premiere.
Sam Green was kind enough to offer up his time for a short interview in advance of the event. What follows is a transcript of our conversation:
NICK: Film fans are probably most aware of your work because of your Oscar-nominated documentary The Weather Underground. Since then, you’ve made several shorts, including the excellent Lot 63, Grave C, and then, beginning with Utopia in Four Movements (2010), you’ve branched out into multimedia performance pieces based in non-fiction or “live documentaries”, including your current piece The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller.
Did you have a history of performance prior to conceiving these live documentary projects?
SAM: No, I really didn't. And I still think of myself as a kind of accidental performer. I sort of backed into it.
NICK: In your mind, what does the live presentational aspect of these projects add to an audience’s appreciation and understanding of a given subject? Conversely, is there anything that’s lost by moving away from the concrete safety of a film where, once the editing is finalized, there’s no risk of going off script?
SAM: This is a great question. I am really interested in "liveness" these days and what the difference is between seeing a regular movie and seeing a movie that is performed live.
A few years ago, Guy Maddin did a live film. It was called Brand Upon the Brain. I saw it at a film festival in Mexcio City. It was phenomenal! Isabella Rossellini narrated as the film screened. There was a live band. And even a group of people doing live foley! It was such a magic experience - people in the audience were giddy.
NICK: That was great! I saw it in Portland w/ Karen Black narrating.
SAM: Later Maddin released Brand Upon the Brain as a regular movie that screened in theaters like a regular film, and it was just so-so.
There's something exciting about live events, I think. The unpredictability, the ephemeral nature of what you are experiencing, the fact that you are in a room with other people and are not checking your phone. Especially now, when filmmakers have to accept that more and more that people are watching their work on a phone, or one a laptop while they check email, I feel like the live film events I'm doing are a valuable way to hang on to the magic of cinema.
NICK: Can you conceive of a time where you would return to a purely cinematic presentation or embrace one rooted entirely in performance?
SAM: I actually am still making normal movies, even as I do the live documentaries. I'm currently editing a short film about fog in San Francisco. I was just doing a residency at an art center in Troy, NY last week called EMPAC and they set me up to edit the fog movie in a huge theater! It was wild. (see photo below).
NICK: Buckminster Fuller was a man who wore many hats. He was an engineer, inventor, architect, and, as your piece forwards, a bit of a philosopher, too. The format in which you’re working requires you to take on several roles at once.
Were you drawn to telling Fuller’s story in part due to the multi-disciplinary techniques you’ve developed for these live documentary pieces? Or, more to the point, did you find yourself identifying with elements of Fuller’s journey through life as you became engaged with telling his story?
SAM: I did a previous live documentary called UTOPIA IN FOUR MOVEMENTS. That piece was a kind of essay/poem about utopia and the fact that today we live in an anti-utopian age. I thought that the live form really worked for that piece because utopia has always been about a kind of collective experience. The idea of a bunch of people watching a film about utopia, all sitting alone in their own apartments is kinda tragic. So the live form actually came out of the subject of that film.
With this new piece, I feel like the film fits, but for other reasons. Buckminster Fuller, perhaps more than anything else, was an amazing performer. He spent years and years traveling the world speaking all over the place and a big part of his fame and popularity came out of these campaigns.
Fuller was legendary for speaking for five to eight to ten hours at a time. Sometimes at a college he would speak all night, and then take the few remaining students who were still in the auditorium at daybreak out to breakfast. He once did a lecture series called "Everything I Know." It's 42 hours long! (A video of it is actually on youtube in about 7,000 little parts).
So the live element was very important to Fuller - he loved people and got a lot of energy from engaging with them. And that seemed to fit with this form.
NICK: It’s quite a burden you’re taking on with a piece like this, representing an individual who can no longer speak for himself.
In conventional documentary filmmaking, you’re often dealing with more direct and primary texts, since the folks you’re highlighting can tell their own stories or, at the very least, it’s other people interpreting your subject’s lives and actions. Here, though, you’re taking on the responsibility of being seen as the interpreter of the story, both as the narrator in the performance and for having conceived the piece. Obviously, you can’t distill every nuance of a person into a one-hour performance.
When researching Fuller’s life and work, how difficult was it to select those characteristics, beliefs, and contributions that best described him?
SAM: Another great question. Obviously, there are hundreds of different films that could be made about Buckminster Fuller - there's the one that focuses on his geometry, there's a film about Fuller and his World Game project - you could make a movie that focuses on the trauma of his early life and how that shaped who he was. So you get the point: there's almost an infinite number of "angles" one could approach him with.
In making movies, I'm always very clear that this is just my own take - the parts of the story that happened to resonate with me. I never make any claim to be making an authoritative film about Fuller. I think that in some ways, this is easier to do w/ a live film. You can see that it's just me up there talking - it's in some ways a humble form.
In any event, what draws me most to Fuller is the fact that he really was a utopian - and I mean that in the best sense of the word. He had certain points that he made over and over again in interviews and speeches and in his writing.
When you've looked at his work long enough, you start to see these themes reappear constantly. And one of his most consistent spiels was the fact that there were plenty of resources to go around - it was completely possible back in the 1920s, when he first started saying this, and still in the 70s and 80s, and even today - the fact is that there are enough resources so that every person on the planet could have a very comfortable life.
The problem is not that there's not enough to go around - it's that we don't distribute things fairly. That's a radical thought and one that I think is more relevant and important today than it's ever been.
NICK: Were there things that you discovered about Fuler that you really wanted to include but had to be set aside for the benefit of telling the best overall story?
SAM: Oh, there are tons of things. When you are putting together a film, you fall in love with things, and then when you have to cut 'em, or you can't fit 'em in the piece, it's heartbreaking. Editors call this killing your babies.
Anyway, there are lots. I was hoping in Portland to be able to include some photos I found in the Fuller archive of him at Oregon State University in 1953 building a dome with students. I couldn't figure out the right place to fit this in the piece, but I still love the photos. (Note from Nick: Sam shared a few of those pictures. The next 3 photos are among the ones he's referring to.)
NICK: This project is a collaborative presentation with the band Yo La Tengo. Besides being a popular indie rock group, they’ve developed a sizable body of non-album oriented work composing music for a variety of films. Probably the closest they’ve come to filling the role they’re playing in this project is with their live musical accompaniment for a presentation of Jean Painlevé shorts (toured around as The Sounds of Science).
How did you hook up with the band for this project? Were they quick to come on board for it or did you have to convince them over time?
SAM: I saw the premiere of Yo La Tengo's Painlevé program at the San Francisco Film Festival about 10 years ago.
NICK: Hey, I was there, too!
SAM: I was just completely agog at how luminous and fantastic it was. I was practically sitting there weeping! It's still one of my top 5 all-time film experiences. I've always loved the band's music, but seeing that really showed me that they could do music for film (which can be a whole different thing).
This Buckminster Fuller piece was commissioned by the SF MOMA and the SF Film Festival earlier this year. When we started to talking about who might be right to play the score, I thought of YLT. Since they had already worked with the SF Film Fest, there was a relationship there. It didn't take a lot of convincing.
I met with Georgia and Ira and explained the project and they were game. I think they like trying new things, and they certainly love film. You know that Georgia Hubley from YLT comes from a famous animation family. Her parents Faith and John Hubley were amazing filmmakers and animators, as is Georgia's sister Emily.
NICK: I love the Hubley animations and once attended a workshop led by Emily Hubley at the NW Film Center.
Would you mind describing how the collaboration took shape over time?
SAM: To put this piece together, I gave them ten different sections of footage - one section that's some great newsreel footage of Fuller's Dynamixon Car, for example; another section shows the huge dome he built at the Montreal World Expo - and they made music for those segments.
That's kind of like the backbone of the piece. And then I wrote words around that. We got together a few times at their practice space in New Jersey and just went through it a bunch of times fine-tuning and really putting together the piece like that.
NICK: I’m really looking forward to seeing the show next Wednesday. It’s pretty much the highlight of this year’s TBA schedule as far as I’m concerned.
Am I correct in my understanding that Portland will only be the second city (after the premiere in San Francisco) where you’ve performed the show? Do you foresee touring the piece beyond the PDX dates?
SAM: We premiered the piece in SF in May. Then we are doing a show in Seattle on 9/11 - the nite before Portland. After that we have a few other shows this fall. You can see those dates at: www.buckminsterfullerfilm.com.
Sam Green and Yo La Tengo will perform The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller twice as a part of this year's TBA Festival at Washington High School on Wednesday, September 12th at 6:30pm and again at 8:30pm. The program is a co-presentation of the NW Film Center & TBA. More info available here.
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