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‘Live documentary’ examines the life and work of visionary architect R Buckminster Fuller

Director Sam Green and Yo La Tengo guitarist Ira Kaplan sound off on the project

In the history of 20th Century architecture and design, few figures are as singular as the charismatic and often visionary R Buckminster Fuller. One of the first architects to seriously consider the concept of sustainability and responsible design, Fuller is famous for his futuristic geodesic domes—and his rejection of the modernist ideology of many of his contemporaries.

On November 10, director Sam Green and venerable indie rock band Yo La Tengo will be performing Green’s film The Love Song of R Buckminster Fuller at the Skirball Cultural Center. First performed in 2012, the project uses elements of both traditional documentary filmmaking and live performance to examine Fuller’s life and legacy.

In advance of the show, Curbed called director Green to talk about Fuller, who spent his final years in Los Angeles, and the film itself.

What is a live documentary?

Live documentary is something I started doing a couple years ago—and I’ve made a lot of "regular" documentaries. And I sort of backed into this form that I’ve been very drawn to the past couple years. It’s basically all the elements of a film, but it happens live. So you go to a movie theater and I’m standing on a stage narrating in person. There are images up on the screen and a band performs a live soundtrack.

In some ways it’s, you know, all the elements of a film—why do it in person? But there’s small things that make it a very different experience.

What kind of small things?

With these shows, they’re never the same twice … I think that’s significant, that it changes each time. And not only does it change because we do it differently—you know, we make mistakes in different places. But I craft the piece a little differently for each show. So in Boston I included a lot of Buckminster Fuller Boston stuff because he grew up there. In San Francisco there were a lot of San Francisco connections, and in LA, there’s some great stuff that took place there.

What are some of the more LA-specific things?

Well, [Fuller] lived the last years of his life in Los Angeles. And the piece is based on his huge archive of things he saved his entire life. He called it the Dymaxion Chronofile. What he did was, starting in the ‘20s, every day he would open a file and put all the receipts and letters and articles and everything that crossed his desk he would put in that. And so you can imagine it’s enormous. And he maintained this his whole life, and had assistants working on it. And when he died in Los Angeles, it was put in storage for many years … it was almost destroyed by fire during the LA riots. And that’s what inspired his family to get Stanford University to take it.

There’s also another great story … one of the last things that [Fuller] did was for the bicentennial of Los Angeles. It was 1981. And he made a dome that was erected in Pershing Square. And he was excoriated in the LA Times. It got one of the worst reviews of anything I’ve ever read … so bad it’s hilarious. It’s ironic that Buckminster Fuller is now very well regarded in the architecture and art and design world. But at this moment, sort of a low moment in his standing and his stature, this thing was just torn up. And it’s also funny because that dome that LA totally repudiated is now a very sought-after thing that travels around to art fairs and museums.

Why does this format make sense for a subject like Buckminster Fuller?

I think in some ways Buckminster Fuller became famous by being a public speaker. And his speeches were legendary. You know, he talked for five hours. And he did this all the time. He spoke constantly and he did it for about 30 years.

I think that a huge part of who Buckminster Fuller was was as a public performer. This piece is a celebration of that, or a reflection of that. It also is a public performance with him as the subject.

And also, the fact that he was such a utopian really moved me. I’m a big fan of the utopian impulse, and one of the things about utopia is that it’s a collective experience. It’s something that people do together. There are very few notions of utopia that involve everybody at home on their own laptop watching Netflix.

So I do think that cinema and a kind of collective experience of [it] is a utopian thing. It sounds silly, but I actually am sincere about that. So there’s something utopian about him and there’s something utopian about the form itself.

Curbed later got in touch with Yo La Tengo guitarist Ira Kaplan to discuss the project.

How does the work of Buckminster Fuller inform the music for this film?

That’s a deceptively difficult question to answer. The group writes together—it’s not like people came in with these ideas we had. So a lot of what we’re doing is always intuitive. I think the influence is there, but it’s not like we were thinking about the shape of a dome and what that means. It’s not literal. It’s just inspired by the process of working. I’m certainly happier about the fact that I don’t know and I like the idea of not knowing where things are coming from.

Fuller, in terms of architecture, had such a distinctive style. Did you feel any element of ‘we have to capture that musically?’

I would say what I hope we’re capturing is a feeling about possibilities and optimism—possibilities for the future. I think there’s more of a spirit that we’re capturing than an architectural style.

Is there anything about in particular about Fuller’s sense of optimism that inspired you?

Given when we’re having this conversation, it’s difficult for me not to bring up the election. I remember the 1960s … to hear Trump talk about the state of the inner cities, it’s a joke to compare it negatively to what was going on in the ‘60s. But the huge difference is that at that time there was the feeling that these problems were solvable … and Fuller is of his time and the time is of Fuller. It’s very inspiring.

The utopian elements of Fuller’s work?

It’s not strictly the word utopian because I’m enough of a citizen of the 21st Century to be a little distrustful of the utopian. But … just the belief that problems can be solved, that we can get better—I think so much of today is about slowing the descent instead of changing the direction.

How does the live performance element of the film change the experience for the audience?

Well, it’s being created in front of them. I think in a lot of ways it’s like a theater piece. And even though theater is not my area of expertise, I think that the way that a play changes every night even though its script doesn’t change, and the orchestra if it’s a musical is playing the same music, every night is different nonetheless.

[With this,] even though we’re working off a script, the script’s not locked. It’s not unchangeable. But even if it were, the performance would change every night. Sam will get a laugh in one place and he won’t get it in the same place the next night. He’ll modulate his voice … it just changes because you’re in the moment.