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Equilateral Triangles and Dymaxion Stories: Sam Green and Yo La Tengo at the Walker

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Friday night’s performance of  The Love […]

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, filmmaker and writer Justin Schell shares his perspective on Friday night’s performance of  The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller by Sam Green and Yo La Tengo. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

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Sam Green, R. Buckminster Fuller, and Yo La Tengo at the Walker. Photo by Justin Schell.

The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, the most recent “live documentary” by filmmaker Sam Green, is an ambitious attempt to encompass the polymath’s life, his work, and its meaning, past, present, and future. On its surface, Love Song is mostly a biography of Fuller, framed through Green’s numerous visits to the Fuller Archives at Stanford University, officially known as the “Dyamxion Chronofile.” The Chronofile was Fuller’s attempt to exhaustively document and preserve everything in his life, from receipts to lecture notes to even his iconic spectacles. (In all, it spans 1200 linear feet, the length of 90 mid-size cars end to end.)

Green uses this as a point from which to trace the patterns of failure and triumph of Fuller’s life, from his suicidal epiphany on the shores of Lake Michigan, the excitement and disappointment of the failure of inventions like the Dymaxion Car and Dymaxion House, to what he’s best known for, the geodesic dome, comprised of its many equilateral triangles.

Beyond just being a biography, however, the “live documentary” form offers audiences a much more dynamic cinematic experience. Green controlled many of the images throughout, whether clicking through a collection of geodesic domes culled from Google Images to show the proliferation of these structures past and present (even in chicken coops!), or adjusting the volume of lecture excerpts of Fuller when he wanted to further elaborate on a point. At times it was a performance, at times a film (where Green would sit down off-stage), and at times an extended TED-style presentation.

He also could “localize” the viewing experience. Starting off with various Twin Cities landmarks, he made a slightly inelegant segue from a Mall of America cronut to Stanford University, where the bulk of the film’s story begins. A more seamless integration of local knowledge and history came from his incorporation of a story from the Walker’s Bucky Fuller Night held this past Thursday, when a city planner told how he had contacted Fuller to explore building a dome over Minneapolis to keep out the harsh winter. The cost, Fuller responded, would be $6 billion dollars. The more cost-effective solution? Skyways.

One draw for many of the audience members was the live soundtrack by Yo La Tengo. At times they were minimalist strains of keyboards and guitar, other times incorporating Georgia Hubley’s drums, other times a variety of sound effects. It was only at the very end of the film, when Green told the concluding story about Fuller making people believe they could feel the earth move by standing in a certain way, that the group’s their music really felt like the love song that makes up the film’s title. It’s a nod to Green’s storytelling ability, his subject matter, and perhaps also to the oft-subservient position of music in film as simply “underscore” that I didn’t really notice Yo La Tengo’s music all that much over the course of the film.

It’s not quite right to say the The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller is a love song for Buckminster Fuller, but I felt that Green’s film didn’t quite engage with the contradictions of Fuller enough. While he nodded to Fuller as an egomaniac and shrewd image-manager (at one point Green compared him to Andy Warhol), these tended to fall by the wayside in Green’s story. Yet this is precisely where I find Fuller intriguing, his relationship to the world that he seemingly wanted to change, that many of his ideas emerged from, and even went hand-in-hand with things like advertising (“Dymaxion” comes from a wordsmith hired to name what would become the Dymaxion House, combining “dynamic,” “maximum,” and “tension”), military research, Fordist ideas of efficiency, industrial capitalism’s voracious over-development, and futurism masked as technological determinism.

The moment that brought this home wonderfully was the “Fuller Meets the Hippies on Hippie Hill” film excerpt, a TV-news special of Fuller meeting with a group of San Francisco hippies in Golden Gate Park at the height of the Bay Area counterculture movement. In the excerpts, Green captures a bizarre juxtaposition between the aging Fuller and his three-piece suit and the long-haired, unkempt hippies who regale him with acid-tripped theories of what can save the world, all framed, of course, by the almost anthropological gaze of the TV news camera and the reporter bringing it to your living room. Fred Turner characterizes Fuller as a “technocrat for the counterculture,” and that rather than faulting either Fuller or the counterculture that idolized him for their failures to transform the world, Turner shows how each are born of the paradox of technological development, embracing the incredible advancements in post-war science and technology while simultaneously facing the utter extinction of all life through the atomic bomb.

With such a tremendous collection of ideas and writings, Fuller presents opportunities for just about anyone to find something they can agree with and use for their own agenda. Green rightly frames Fuller as a utopian, and at the end of the film positions Fuller as a kind of inspiration for the badly-needed mantra of “do more with less,” twice playing Fuller’s statement that there is no reason that everyone can’t have a comfortable life given the resources available in the world. Yet this message struck me as more along the lines of a “we’re all human,” not really a call to action but more a rhetorical device to make people think about their own lives, their own consumption, etc a little bit more. In the end, though, this is Green telling his story of Fuller telling his story. For people who already have their ideas of Fuller fully-formed and cemented, The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller will confirm their beliefs, but the engagement with Fuller and what accomplished and represents shouldn’t stop with just a love song.