Buckminster Fuller.
Buckminster Fuller.

With the world premiere of “The Love Song of Buckminster Fuller” at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Sam Green is reviving the legacy of the prophetic engineer and architect who promoted independent design and sustainability when America was clear-cutting forests, paving wetlands and driving the wasteful cars that almost put General Motors out of business.

This twist on the bio-doc genre is not just a film, but a performance, with narration from Green and music from the band Yo La Tengo.

Perhaps most importantly: Both May 1 live shows are sold out. He promises shows in other cities soon.

Green sees this approach as a new business plan for independent film. That promise couldn’t be more timely.

“It’s all the elements of a movie – images, narration and soundtrack – but it all happens live,” said Green, 45, who was nominated for an Oscar for “The Weather Underground” (2004). The Fuller piece was commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the director has also released his new half-hour doc on Esperanto, “The Universal Language,” on the Internet.

The performances complement an SFMOMA exhibition, "The Utopian Impulse: Buckminster Fuller and the Bay Area," devoted to Fuller and the evolution of Bay Area techno-culture. It may get a bump in attendance if the younger generation that swarmed Fuller lectures 50 years ago catches on today.  

As doc subjects go, it’s not the most obviously promotable. Among today’s youth, Fuller’s signature geodesic dome is as current as eight-track stereo. “It’s sort of like what happened when I made a movie about the Weather Underground,” Green said. “When you tell people what you’re doing, everyone over a certain age knows what you’re talking about. Everyone under a certain age has no idea who you’re talking about. They don’t know who Buckminster Fuller was.”

“It's weird,” said Green, “A lot of what he was saying is more relevant now than ever.”

Green’s approach is not entirely new. Green toured his previous performance film, “Utopia in Four Movements,” for the past two years. He also cites precedents in Jean Painleve’s elegant documentaries about aquatic life, a major influence on Picasso in the 1930s, which have since played with live accompaniment, most recently with Yo La Tengo. Green adds that he was inspired by the travelogues with live narration that he saw with his grandparents when he was growing up in East Lansing, Michigan.

Among his peers, Green cites “Brand Upon the Brain” by Guy Maddin, plus the films of Jem Cohen, and those of Brent Green (no relation), who blends music with raw Americana. “We trade tips,” said Sam Green.