A MEDIUM TO FIT THE MESSAGE: Sam Green brings THE MEASURE OF ALL THINGS to The Kitchen
Sam Green never thought of himself as a performer. He’s in his element here in his editing studio, a bright and airy contrast to the damp Brooklyn night outside. A few years ago, though, something forced this self-professed “shy documentary filmmaker” to expand his role beyond that of the man behind the camera.
“I made a film that wasn’t working,” he says. “It was kind of an experimental documentary – four different stories that were all about utopia in one way or another but with no seeming connection. I showed a rough cut to people I knew, and they said, ‘This doesn’t make any sense. I don’t understand this at all.’ So begrudgingly I realized that I needed to explain. And I was stuck because I hate narration in movies.”
“At a certain point,” Sam tells me, “somebody asked me to give a talk about the project. So I said, okay, I’ll talk and I’ll show some clips from the film, and I’ll even get my friend Dave [Cerf] to make live music.”
After giving a few of these presentations on the project – which grew more elaborate and multifaceted with each staging – Sam came to a realization: this was the form his film was meant to take. The project, Utopia in Four Movements, became the first of what Sam calls his “live documentaries” – “live,” because each showing encompasses traditional documentary footage on the movie screen, Sam’s live in-person narration, and live musical accompaniment.
“For a lot of reasons that form appealed to me, from political to aesthetic to economic,” Sam explains. “I’ve been really smitten with the form ever since; I’ve kept coming back to it because I’m curious about it. I want to play with it, see how far I can push it. To me, it’s an infinitely interesting approach.”
Four years after Utopia in Four Movements played at the Sundance Film Festival, Sam will bring his new live documentary, The Measure of All Things (which also premiered at Sundance), to The Kitchen on November 21 and 22. It’s the third project he’s shown there, after Utopia and The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, a live documentary about the eccentric visionary architect that includes a live score by the indie rock band Yo La Tengo. As both a filmmaker and a performer, Sam is attuned to the chameleonic nature of his work, especially when taking it from a decidedly film-accustomed audience in Park City to the heart of the New York experimental performance scene.
“One of the things that really interests me about working in this way is spanning different worlds, and learning about those different worlds,” he says. “It’s different to do a show at Sundance and at The Kitchen. This is an audience that’s much more performance-oriented. My background is in film, and it’s been a real education to sort of put a foot into the performance world and to get some sense of how it works, and how an audience engages with work in that world. It’s not that I change the piece, but I do have to be aware of the fact that it’s like going to a different country.”
With The Measure of All Things, Sam delves into the stories of Guinness World Record holders. It’s fitting subject matter for a filmmaker working in such a singular medium.
“I, probably like all kids, was very into the Guinness Book of Records,” Sam tells me. “A couple of years ago, I found an old paperback copy, probably from about the time I would’ve been reading it. And I started looking through it, and I thought, Oh my god; the photos. I remembered the photos. You know, the woman with a very narrow waist, or the two fat twins on motorcycles. Or the tallest guy in the world, next to his normal sized family. All these photos were completely etched into my memory. I was interested in what it was that… Why was I so into this? I mean, there are a lot of silly records, like the biggest pizza, or something. But there are also the records that aren’t people trying to get into the book as much as inadvertently ending up there. The person who’s been struck by lightning the most times. The biggest tumor. The lowest-grossing movie. The oldest person. You know, these are all things that people never sought out, and now they’re in there.”
Sam’s exploration of lives defined by extraordinary documented feats – or, often, unforeseeable twists of fate – is an exercise in peeling back the veneer of the Guinness label to reveal the humanity, and, in many ways, the pathos behind the outsized facts and figures. “I started to see the book almost like a kind of poem about fate, and the mysteries of being alive,” he says. “And in that sense it really moved me.”
The live documentary form is well suited to highlighting that sense of wonder and compassion. Sam’s performance as narrator is never flashy or over the top, and he often defers to the film’s subjects to tell their own stories. His presence on the stage, as well as that of the live band (the chamber group yMusic performed with the film at Sundance, and will play at the Kitchen as well), brings into sharp focus the intimacy of the stories unfolding on screen. As a filmmaker, Sam is necessarily most concerned with the cinematic element of the whole. It’s for that reason that he’s wary of the possibility of expanding his work to include a broader range of on-stage performance elements.
“It’s interesting because one could go far down that road,” Sam says. “In a way, what I’m doing is in dialogue with the documentary film tradition and form. There’s a long history of performative films. In the early days of film there was a lecture film tradition, or the Benshi tradition in Japan, or the travelogue tradition. So I don’t want to stray too far from that form. I’m aware of these very subtle boundaries that, in some ways, I’m trying to stay within.”
But even within the film world, as Sam notes, those boundaries are more permeable than ever. “The media landscape, the landscape of imagery and film, has changed a lot. I mean, when I started making movies, which is now almost twenty years ago, there weren’t that many of them, and images had a certain scarcity to them. Now we live in a world where, A: there are millions of movies, millions of great movies, and B: we’re awash with images. I find myself trying to make sense of that, or to come to terms with that.”
In its own way, the live documentary form is a kind of quiet revolt against that constant, perpetually replicable media wash. “What I’m doing is, in many ways, a response to that,” Sam says. “There’s that McLuhan quote; it’s almost a cliché. ‘The medium is the message.’ I feel the relevance of that today when I look at a movie on my computer and it’s just a file. Do you know what I mean?”
In an era of video-on-demand, Sam Green’s choice to inject his films with performance, and therefore irreplaceability, makes him the antithesis of the modern filmmaker. But it also makes every scarce opportunity to experience his work all the more exhilarating.
THE MEASURE OF ALL THINGS plays at The Kitchen on Friday, November 21 and Saturday, November 22 at 7 & 9PM. Tickets at www.thekitchen.org.
Patrick Reiher is a writer based in New York City.