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Why Live Performance Could Save the Experimental Documentary

Why Live Performance Could Save the Experimental Documentary

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.“It’s a better business plan, but it’s also better for the audience,”  said Brent Green, a musician who tours with his films as he would with a band. “A live performance with people in front of you really gives you that experience. With film, where it’s easier to download and share and pirate stuff, that way of making a living is going to phase out, so filmmakers have to figure out new ways to do that. Doing live films isn’t necessarily the answer for everyone, but in some situations, it’s a good solution.”

Sam Green stressed that it’s not just about art for art’s sake. “It sounds completely counterintuitive, but honestly doing live things the economics are much better than if I were making an experimental documentary about utopia or Buckminster Fuller,” he said. “If we did something at the Walker Art Center, the Wexner Art Center or the Kitchen, they pay performance fees, rather than screening fees. The difference between performance fees and screening fees is one or two figures. That world is still set up for people to get paid decently.”

Sam Green noted that “The Weather Underground,” budgeted at around $250,000, was a relative success by doc box office standards – more than $564,000 in the US theatrically, distributed by Shadow Distribution and TV sales worldwide handled by Annie Roney of ro*co films international.  

“For experimental or art movies, there’s not a lot of great options these days,” he said. “My great friend the filmmaker Sarah Jacobson once said to me, ‘Movies are always a couple years behind music, in terms of distribution and economics’ – it’s already happened in music that unless you’re a huge artist, you’re not going to make money selling your music. So people make money doing live stuff, touring. That’s how you make money as a musician now.”

Still, it would seem that there are fewer performing spaces available to filmmakers doing live shows than there are screens for theatrical indie release. Not a problem, said Brent Green, who regularly improvises spaces to perform, including an abandoned drive-in in upstate New York.  Venues are like audiences, he said. “You have to earn them – no one owes you their money or their space or their time.”

Sam Green made “The Love Song of Buckminster Fuller” for around $50,000. “It’s a much smaller scale. I put it together in Keynote – it’s not this huge thing where you edit for two years.” Not all of the budget came from the SFMoMA commission. “I got a little more ambitious, so I raised more money myself,” he said, declining to give the exact figure from the museum,” he said.

“The Universal Language,”,which Green made for $125,000, is now available on Green’s web site. He didn’t expect to organize live performances in Esperanto to promote it to the 2 million people who speak the language worldwide. “They’re dispersed,” said Sam Green, “It’s hard to get a lot of them in the same place.  The smartest way to distribute it is the internet, so the three people who speak Esperanto in Mongolia can download it and the 1500 people who speak it in Brazil can download it.”

Sam Green said he won’t rule out making a documentary destined for theaters, but knows the odds are rising against any filmmaker making such a project work financially. “On the other hand, the glass is half full,” he said. “There are a lot of opportunities for people to do things and fund their work. I’m not talking about Kickstarter, which I sort of can’t stand. That model of  ‘Let’s all ask our friends to support our work’ doesn’t seem like a good solution. If I gave money to everybody who wrote me about a Kickstarter campaign, I’d be out on the street homeless.”

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