Sam Green and Yo La Tengo’s The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller

By Columbus Alive
From the October 18, 2012 edition

When San Francisco filmmaker Sam Green conceived his 2010 documentary “Utopia in Four Movements,” the idea was to present four loosely related visions of idealized society.

“The film would never say what the connections were, but you as the audience would sit there and make the connections,” Green said by phone last week.

Trouble was, nobody made the connections.

“People said, ‘This doesn’t make any sense at all,’” Green said. “I was very crestfallen and kind of stunned.”

Then somebody asked Green to do a PowerPoint presentation about “Utopia.” Green hired his friend to “DJ” musical accompaniment. Against his original intent, Green spelled out his ideas.

“People got it. People seemed to really connect,” Green recalled. “Not to sound too northern California, but there was a great energy in the room.”

More presentations followed, evolving into a form of performance art. Green took his live-narrated film on tour for more than two years, including a stop in Columbus at the Wexner Center.

Against the trend of experiencing film at home through personal devices, Green had accidentally developed a format that demanded live experience, one whose essence was impossible to transfer to DVD. He wanted to build a movie with that concept in mind from the beginning.

Then, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art commissioned Green to make a movie about geodesic dome creator R. Buckminster Fuller. Once Green explored Fuller’s extensive archive at Stanford, he knew he had the subject of his next experiment.

Green hoped to incorporate live music by Yo La Tengo, a legendary indie rock band known for tackling unusual projects. He remembered being awestruck watching the band perform The Sounds of the Sounds of Science, its soundtrack to the underwater nature films of director Jean Painlevé. So Green contacted the band through a mutual friend.

“We were instantly into it in theory,” Yo La Tengo member Ira Kaplan said in a separate interview. “It was more of a scheduling question that we had to kind of reconcile. We have a record coming out in January, and the process by which we get ready to record can sometimes be a slippery one.”

Yo La Tengo found the time, so Green presented the band with 10 clips accompanied by previous Yo La Tengo songs and asked the band to craft new pieces in the same vein. The process was uniquely collaborative.

“Normally when you make movies and you get music, they sort of make the music and you say, ‘I want this faster,’ or, ‘Make this more melancholy.’ But this was much more of a two-way street and a back and forth since we’re all on stage,” Green said.

The resulting work, “The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller,” debuted last April in San Francisco. A handful of other performances are booked, including two showings Thursday at the Wexner Center. Though these performances are rare due to Yo La Tengo’s availability, Green and Kaplan urged Thursday’s audience to put down their smartphones and record with their brains.

“It feels like if you just experience it, you’ll remember it,” Kaplan said.