Performing Film: Sam Green at The Kitchen
Sam Green is performing his latest film at The Kitchen this week. Did you catch that—how I wrote “film” as the direct object of “performing”? The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller is Green’s second foray into what he refers to as “live documentary”, a combination of in-person narration, actively cued film clips, and a live score. A collaboration with the band Yo La Tengo, Love Song follows Green’s previous work in this format, Utopia in Four Movements (2010), continuing an investigation of how the language of film can perhaps be more fluid, more open to active meaning-making by the audience.
Me and Jess Applebaum talked with Green about this film, and he gave us lots of great insights and things to think about regarding performance. Green’s project tangentially reminds me of the conversation I had last month with Dana Ruttenberg: where Ruttenberg was moving from live performance to see what film opened for her practice, Green is moving in the opposite direction. I wouldn’t offer much more comparison than that, but it is interesting to think about these different projects in relation to one another.
The interview follows below. Keep an eye out for a follow-up to the performance as well.
(The show has been sold out for ages, so I can’t really tell you to go buy a ticket, but if you’re eager enough you might try to get standby seating? Tuesday and Wednesday nights, 7pm & 9pm. $25)
This is your second “live documentary”, but can you tell us how you first came to this format, with your previous film Utopia?
I wanted to make a film on “utopia”, but utopia is a really slippery idea, so I wanted to figure out a sort-of complex language with which to address the idea. Around this time, I saw the documentary Dial History, and I felt it was fantastically open ended, sophisticated and loose in a refreshing way. Most film, if it’s socially engaged, can sometimes be very didactic. So I wanted to make a movie that was four stories about “utopia”, where I didn’t explain the connection between these stories, so that people could make their own meaning. I put together a rough cut, and it didn’t work at all! People were really stumped and didn’t get what the film was about. I recognized that I needed to add some explanation, but I was very reluctant to add voice-over narration.
At some point I got asked to do a presentation about the project. So I gave a talk, and asked a friend, Dave Cerf, to make some music to go along with the talk I gave. And somehow, it worked exactly how I wanted the movie to work—people got it, there was a nice energy in the room, people were engaged in conversation afterwards. We did this presentation a few more times, making it a little fancier each time, and eventually I thought, based on the material and content of the film, that in fact this was the form the movie should take.
So you arrived at the live format of Utopia sort of by accident. But in making Love Song, you began the project knowing the format it would take. How did you approach this project differently?
Utopia was very much defined by the formal elements of film. Ideas about pacing, rhythm, how you combine things; the language, the format, of the piece is very “film-ic”. The narration organized everything else. But I felt the real power of this form is in letting people sit back and have the live music and huge projected images wash over them.
When I started this next project, I came at it with the idea of building the film around the music. To make the piece, I gave the band 10 segments of film, things that I felt I could make a movie around. Then they made the music, and I built the narration of the film around that.
I like what you say about using “big images,” being aware of how the size of the image affects the viewing experience. How does this awareness come into the process of making the film? Does it make you think about the audience’s attention in a different way?
I love film editing, and what you are doing when editing is very meticulously engineering people’s attention. You put scenes together, you edit so that they are engaged all the time. You can’t let it flag, you are even aware of where on the screen they are looking. So in that way, when making a film, I’ve always had an attention to the viewing experience.
But the part that has been fascinating for me—and for anyone who is a performer, this is obvious—was to start to think about all the other things that impact the viewing experience. If you’re a filmmaker, when your film goes out in the world, if there is a screen, seats, and some speakers, you’re pretty good with that; you don’t really concern yourself with much else. With this project, it was really eye-opening to be involved in the screenings, and to start to become aware of all these other things—the size of the room, the rake of the seats, the time of day. All these things I had never considered before in being a filmmaker, I started becoming very sensitive to.
So this thing about “big images”: there is a huge difference about how people engage with it based on how big it is. Whereas last time when we showed Utopia I wasn’t so attentive to it, this time at The Kitchen I made sure to get the biggest image we possible could in that space. These small things make a huge difference in the viewers’ experience.
When I saw Utopia, you mentioned in a talkback afterwards that the proliferation of small-screens—people watching movies on their computers, even their phones—has started to have an impact on how filmmakers work. So does this live format lead you to use more “big images” than you might otherwise when making a film?
If you look at Lawrence of Arabia, those wide vistas don’t have the same impact on a small screen. So what’s happened is that people have started to edit for small screens—more close ups, things like that. With this project, I know that the image is always going to be big. What it means is that I can continue to edit the way filmmakers have always tended to edit, which is for big screens.
Is there any way that having control of the screen size comes into play in terms of your live presentation?
As an example: there are several ways to think about placing the image in the room. I was emailing with a lighting person who I’m going to work with on a new live movie, and they pointed out that I could choose where to put the screen in relation to where I was. I could put the screen “above” me in a sense, which is the normal way, or I could make it “lower” so that I am actually part of the image when I’m onstage. So I’m slowly starting to become more open to new possibilities like this. And I think it could be really interesting to edit in a way that engaged outside of the screen a bit more. But I’m taking baby steps! This project, Love Song, is a bit more performative, but I’m still a filmmaker.
I’m intrigued that you see this primarily as a film, and that you continue to think about it from a film perspective. It’s too easy for me to come at it primarily from a performance perspective.
Well, that’s complicated, because the truth is I call it different things based on the context. In film contexts it’s a “live documentary”, but in performance contexts I’m happy to call it a “performance” or a “lecture performance”. We did some shows of Utopia in public libraries, and there I called it a “fancy lecture”. That just shows in some way how arbitrary some of those terms are, and you just call it something that’s meaningful to whoever is presenting it. Yet…for all the talk about how “genre is falling away”, I think people are shaped by traditions, that audiences bring certain expectations based on whether it’s a film or performance (for example), and the makers themselves are in dialog with traditions. So I’m very interested in performance, and am happy to explore it further, but a lot of what I’m doing is in dialog with a film tradition and comes out of a crisis in cinema in a digital age. Though, I don’t want to do something that is not valid, or not recognized, or not “worthy” in a performance context as well…it would be great to be able to talk to two contexts at the same time, but that’s difficult.
How are you thinking about scoring and music when making in this form?
What’s been challenging, but neat, is that this form is very malleable. I mentioned I gave the band 10 sections, but there were places where, for example, the band asked if a certain section could go around a few more times, could I add a couple shots to this? And I would say “Sure, no problem.” Or there was a place where they said, “We’re gonna play this part three times, and when we hit this specific note, why don’t you say your last line?” And at first I thought “I can’t do that,” with all the other things I had to manage—the narration, cueing the clips—I can’t count too. But we did it enough times and of course I could. And that doesn’t happen in making a film so much, generally you edit the film and the scoring happens after. So the back and forth has been very enjoyable and led to some pleasant surprises.
Do you find that the form opens possibilities for improvisation? If you’re with the audience and they’re particularly attuned to an image and a sound, do you allow that experience to build and guide how you unfold the material?
When we premiered Utopia at Sundance, somebody asked a question right in the middle of the film. I thought that was great, I loved it, so then we thought “This is a great idea. We’ll have a spontaneous Q&A right in the middle of the piece.” At the next show we tried it, and it was a total disaster! People mostly want to sit back and take in the work, not have a discussion in the middle of it. But I’m open to serendipity, for sure.
We can also change the film everywhere we do it. This works particularly well with Fuller because he traveled everywhere, so with every show we’ve done, I’ve been able to work some things from that place into the film. We did that in Seattle, Boston, Columbus. So here, there’s a lot of New York images highlighted.
A last question, what’s most exciting about this form and what does it bring out for you?
It’s been interesting, through this project, to learn more about and become more aware of other forms. People who do performance have been doing these things for a long time, and are really good at them. I think it’s important to acknowledge that when you wander into a new realm, that “hey, I’m new here,” new to this form, and to do so humbly. Of course it goes both ways. I went to a lecture-performance recently and took some film people with me, and the video was used so badly in the presentation, it was terrible. The aspect ratio was wrong! They were showing 16:9 in 4:3! My film friends were like “What!?!” and just hated it.
So what has been most exciting is, again, something that probably every performer knows, which is just being in front of an audience and having that energy exchange, and engaging with their experience of the film. It can be really meaningful, and that is something that normally as a filmmaker you just don’t get. Watching something on a phone makes the experience really small, and I’m interested in making this as significant as possible, to use film to make something that can really linger with people. That’s what I like.