Q&A: With Documentary Filmmaker Sam Green, Inventor Of The Love Song Of Buckminster Fuller


BY JONATHAN VALANIA Since 1997, filmmaker Sam Green has been making thought-provoking, rigorously reported and eminently entertaining documentaries about, in his words, “the outer contours of human experience.” Be it the rainbow-wigged, Bible-thumping kidnapper (currently serving three life sentences) of 1997’s The Rainbow Man/John 3:16 or the utopian dreamers turned bomb-throwing revolutionaries by the murderous insanity of the Vietnam War in The Weather Underground, or the miraculous Guinness Book human oddities living lives of quiet desperation in 2014’s The Measure Of All Things.

The Love Song Of R. Buckminster Fuller, which gets its Philly premiere tonight during two sold out performances at FringeArts new headquarters on the Delaware, is the story of a man who thought outside the box decades before the very notion would be reduced to trite management-speak. Think of it as the coolest powerpoint presentation you ever had to endure. Green [PICTURED, RIGHT] narrates and cues the images on the screen while Yo La Tengo performs the score, and all of it happens right before your very eyes.

A noted futurist, architect, engineer, author, Buckminster Fuller was, for a few decades in the mid-to-late 20th Century, public intellectual number one. Fuller — who lived in Philadelphia from 1972 until his death in 1983, teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr College, Haverford College and Swarthmore College — was an early champion of sustainable living through an equitable parsing of available resources and the notion of the Earth as a single, interdependent organism. He is also, for better or worse, the inventor of the straight line-defying Geodesic Dome. Unlike most of his scientific peers, Fuller knew how to sell his ideas to the general public and did not hesitate to do so. Even if he was a little bit Einstein and a whole lotta P.T. Barnum, you can’t help but root for him in the end because his greatest legacy is his sincere and unshakeable belief in the power of the human mind to make a better world.

PHAWKER: Before we get into Buckminster Fuller, I have a couple questions about your 2003 documentary The Weather Underground, which is about a group of radical anti-war activists back in the late 1960s and ’70s. Is that news footage of Dustin Hoffman standing outside of the smoking ruins of the Weathermen house in Greenwich Village after they accidentally detonated the bomb they were building, killing three of them?

SAM GREEN: Yeah, he lived next door to that. Yeah, at one point I thought ‘Maybe I should promote the film with a cameo appearance by Dustin Hoffman’ but I didn’t do it.

PHAWKER: I’ve long been fascinated by The Weathermen. I’ve interviewed Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dorhn, so I’m pretty acquainted with their story, but I always wondered how did these dope-smoking, free-love longhairs manage to pull all the things off that they did? It’s very advanced Mission Impossible-style stuff like breaking Timothy Leary out of a Federal maximum security prison, and planting and detonating more than two dozen bombs in government buildings around the country, including the Pentagon and the Capital building. I mean, they are all smart people, but this is the kind of stuff that most paramilitary people couldn’t pull off, even with a lot of training. Can you explain that?

SAM GREEN: Yeah I think it’s a combination of two things. One, when you get right down to it they are kind of badasses. They were smart about this stuff in ways that you wouldn’t think that white, middle class college kids were. They somehow learned how to operate underground in sophisticated ways, getting fake IDs, talking and communicating off the grid through payphones and stuff like that. And then also the other side of the coin, the FBI was just lame and clueless. Eventually they learned but for a long time they just couldn’t get undercover operatives inside the group. There were a lot of funny stories about clueless FBI guys trying to pass themselves off as counterculture types. They would call the law enforcement people ‘shoes’ and that was their codeword for them because you could only tell when some hippie guy showed up wearing like a tye-dye shirt but you would look down at his shoes and they were cop shoes. So it seemed like the cops were pretty clumsy and inept so I think that helped The Weather Underground out a lot.

PHAWKER: OK, let’s talk about The Love Song Of R. Buckminster Fuller. Explain who Buckminster Fuller is to our younger readers who, presumably, have no clue?

SAM GREEN: Buckminster Fuller was an adventurer and designer architect who was born in the late 1800s, lived through the 1980s, and for many years, about 50 years, was a pretty high profile visionary futurist. He designed a lot of things and invented a lot of things. His best-known invention is the Geodesic Dome which in the 1970s was a pretty popular idea. He has lectured all over for many many years and was a person in the public eye. After he died he faded into obscurity, or semi obscurity for a while, but he is going to be rediscovered. Partly because he was talking about sustainability and resources and a lot of issues that are pretty pressing today. So his words and ideas are relevant today. I was like many people, I just sort of knew him as the ‘dome guy’ the ‘guy from the 70s.’ The San Francisco Museum Of Art was doing an exhibit about Fuller two years ago and they asked me to do a live documentary about him. And I said ‘That seems pretty interesting.’ They said ‘The papers are at Stanford University and you should go take a look.’ I expected like 10 boxes worth of stuff or something and what I found was the most enormous collection of papers that have ever been compiled for one person. His papers are called the Dymaxion Chronofile, that’s what he called them, he was very self-conscious and deliberate about saving everything. So it’s just thousands and thousands of documents that he had saved his entire life. It is fascinating, totally fascinating, so for somebody that loves archives, it was kind of divine. So I became a big fan of him by going through his stuff.

PHAWKER: There’s a bit of a charlatan aspect to what he was doing. He was a bit of a hustler. Maybe all academics are public intellectuals to a certain extant but can you speak to that at all?

SAM GREEN: I think he was a very idealistic person with true, sincere motives. But at the same time he understood that to get your ideas out there you have to hustle and be a total self-promoter and be good at marketing. So he did all those things, he was a total hustler, he was a salesman, he marketed the hell out of himself and his ideas. I think at the end of the day he was doing that because his motives were pure but he was also pretty smart about marketing himself. He did the thing that Andy Warhol or Tom Wolffe did, you sort of create an image for yourself and you wear the exact same thing all the time until you become an icon. So he wore a black suit all the time and had the huge glasses, and did a lot of things like that that were very wise and smart that made him a memorable public figure.

PHAWKER: Now explain his connection to Philadelphia because I know he was revered amongst the Philly counterculture in the 1970s.

SAM GREEN: Buckminster Fuller lived in Philadelphia from 1973-80. He was a professor at Penn, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and Swarthmore. Simultaneously. They made this kind of super position for him. It was an important time for him and for the counterculture and he did lots of stuff for Philly. He had a big office on Market Street. He did a lecture series called Everything I Know which is 42 hours long. He would talk in this completely extemporaneous manner and he just kind of went on and on. It’s actually on You Tube now, in a million different little pieces, you can watch it. it is definitely one of his seminal works.

PHAWKER: Did you watch all 42 hours?

SAM GREEN: [laughs] I did not but I did watch the beginning and the end.

PHAWKER: Which of his ideas still speak to today? What can we still learn from him?

SAM GREEN: He really believed strongly in this idea of ‘designer evolution.’ It is the idea that by building things more efficiently, by doing ‘more with less,’ that was one of his key phrases, we could distribute resources more fairly. If all houses were built in an efficient way and buildings were built in an efficient way we would use way less resources and we could distribute them more fairly. If people weren’t fighting over resources there would be a lot more peace. So he believed, and this was his thing from the ’20s all the way to the ’80s, he was very consistent with this. If you think about it, in the ’30s and ’40s, that was an interesting idea but not really pressing. There was not a huge shortage of resources in the 1950s but now more than ever his concept of sustainability is relevant — the idea that we have all the resources we need its just a matter of being efficient about them and distributing them more wisely. He insisted that we have enough resources for everyone on the planet to have a comfortable life, we just have to do a better job of using them wisely and distributing them more equitably so that to me is a very contemporary and relevant idea today because we are dealing with a shortage of resources. I think it is uncanny in a way how much of what he was saying in 1935 pertains to us in 2014.

PHAWKER: He also pioneered this idea of ‘spaceship earth’ and the idea of the planet being a singular interdependent organism. Can you talk about that at all?

SAM GREEN: Yeah, he was a very early proponent of the idea that borders and nationalism are archaic notions, that we are all one planet. Some of this stuff is sort of cliché today but if you think about it, he came up with these ideas back in the 1940s, so it’s pretty radical. He was a great marketer of things so he came up with great book titles and phrases and stuff. One of his ideas was he wrote a book called ‘An Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth.’ That would have been a pretty great title for a book in 1970 or something but I think he wrote that book in the early sixties so it was just a radical idea and way before it was normal to think about the whole Earth and it being a system of resources and stuff like that. He was a real proponent of that kind of approach which is a contemporary notion.

PHAWKER: Let’s talk about the Geodesic Dome, which is arguably his most iconic creation or innovation. Tell the readers a little bit about what happened at the 1967 World Expo and what became of that dome.

SAM GREEN: Probably his most famous dome he designed for the world Expo in Montreal in 1967. It’s just a fantastically beautiful structure and there was a train going through it. You can go online and look at the photos and footage of it. It was just a huge success, like there’s footage of Jackie O. going through it and many people visited that summer and saw it and were pretty knocked out by it. Incidentally both Ira and Georgia from Yo La Tengo were there as kids with their parents. So it is just a wonderful thing and an expression of that moment in 1967 of hope and optimism and a kind of belief in a utopian technological future. And a couple years later the dome actually caught on fire, it was made out of plastic, the outer shell caught on fire. It’s still there, the outside of it is still there and it still looks pretty cool but it is not quite the same. The dome was big in the ’60s and ’70s and the counterculture embraced the dome because of political reasons. It was not straight lines like ‘The Man’s architecture’ and it was this idea of doing away with rectangles and we’re gonna live in this round and fluid way where everything is open. I think it resonated for political reasons but many people found the domes were not so comfortable to live in. There’s still a lot of domes out there but as a realistic alternative for living it didn’t quite meet the hype.

PHAWKER: Are there domes out there that people are actually living in?

SAM GREEN: Oh yeah, for sure, all over.

PHAWKER: For the benefit of readers that have not seen it or don’t know the concept, explain how the documentary works as a performance piece.

SAM GREEN: I call it a ‘live documentary’ and what I mean by that it’s a combination of film and live performance. I cue images from my computer that are projected up on the screen. So you see things, still images, moving images, people being interviewed, and then I narrate the whole thing standing on the side of the stage. Then the band, Yo La Tengo, plays a live soundtrack on the other side of the stage. I will send you a photo which helps a person understand more than just hearing it but it is all the elements of ‘woah this happens live’ and it’s a cinematic experience but a live one too. It’s a cross between a performance, a movie, and a fancy lecture. In a world now where people watch movies all the time on their computers and alone, while checking their email, this form seemed really refreshing to me.

PHAWKER: You are already working on your next project, I saw you did a Kickstarter for something called The Measure Of All Things? Tell me about that.

SAM GREEN: It’s a new live documentary based loosely on the Guinness Book of World Records, which I loved as a kid and I found a copy recently and was just was knocked out by it, it’s such an odd, wonderful, tragic, fascinating book. So it’s a series of portraits, places, and things from the Guinness Book of World Records and it’s not silly the way that some of the book is like ‘The Largest Group Hug.’ This is more people who find themselves in the Guiness Book of World Records who didn’t seek it out. So the oldest person in the world, tallest person in the world, someone who has been struck by lightning the most times, and so it’s a piece that is actually about fate and the mysterious nature of our existence and the outer contours of our human experience. We are just starting to do shows with that, we premiered that piece earlier this year.

PHAWKER: Just for the record, the guy who was hit by lightning the most times was seven? Is that correct.

SAM GREEN: Yes and he ended up taking his own life.

PHAWKER: Well, that’s a bummer note to end on.

SAM GREEN: [laughs] Aw man, lets try something that would be a higher note to end on.

PHAWKER: Okay, are you already looking ahead to the next thing after The Measure of All Things?

SAM GREEN: No, with both Buckminster Fuller which were continuing to do screenings of, and this new ‘The Measure of All Things’ my hands are pretty full for the rest of the year. But we are very excited to come to Philly, and like I said to you earlier I add things to the piece everywhere we go. And we have done a lot of shows, we just did a show in Miami, and there was some Fuller connections to Miami that I was able to add. But some places are harder than others, but Philly is at the top of the list at places that are easier to do because Fuller actually lived there and did a lot there so I’m excited about that.

PHAWKER: Well at least we are known for something other than booing Santa Claus.