Sam Green and the Empathy Machine


‘The Measure of All Things’

[Editor’s note: We revisit this January interview with then Sundance-bound Sam Green, who is now a FIX-featured filmmaker on Fandor during our documentary-film-focused month of October and performs The Measure of All Things in New York on November 21 and 22, with live scores by yMusic and Brendan Canty, Todd Griffin and Catherine McRae. Tickets are now on sale.]

I’ve talked to Sam Green many times over the years, in so many 20th-century ways—in person at a coffee shop, over a kitchen table and a game of Yahtzee, walking down a street in downtown San Francisco, California, or through snow pack in Park City, Utah—but never in the preferred form of the 21st: live on the net. “These video chats are really the only promise of The Future that came to be,” he laughs. “No jet packs, no vacation homes on the moon, but, yes, Skype!” Sam Green has long taken joy at unpacking utopian promises of the past, many deluded, others inspired, and offering them up for re-evaluation and appreciation. In the process he’s moved through a variety of formulae and formats for telling those stories, from short film model of lot 63, grave c to the feature documentary with Academy Award-nominated The Weather Underground to the one-off live “film event” he now favors. He took Utopia in Four Movements (from which stellar short The World’s Largest Shopping Mall and The Universal Language were built) on tour and The Measure of All Things, an event that jumps off from The Guinness Book of World Records, he takes to the Sundance Film Festival next week. I spoke to him as he was putting the finishing touches on a project that will likely never be quite done.


Sam Green, presenting t Sundance

Susan Gerhard: I believe I’ve seen every last one of your Live Cinema events up to this point, some more than once…. I’m excited that you’re now a regularly featured attraction at Sundance. What’s the best part of creating this kind of spectacle for you?

Sam Green: This is my second time at Sundance. The best part is actually that the only meaningful way the piece exists is the screening. When you make a normal movie, you put it out in the world and it’s diffuse. This piece, this way, has never existed until January 21 in Park City, Utah. Everyone will have this shared experience of it and it will never exist in the same way again. That’s what I love about it. It’s this very ephemeral way for something to be in the world, which I really like. Especially these days when everything is streamable and downloadable, you can see it everywhere.


‘The Weather Underground’

Gerhard: This is a big change, moving from documentary film director (as you were with The Weather Underground, which is mostly being a researcher and an editor—very behind-the-scenes jobs) to a live-and-on-stage performer.

Green: Part of why I like it is it’s a huge challenge. It’s super scary. I get nervous. I was drawn to film for the reason most other filmmakers are: you’re shy and like to watch things; you’re a bit of a voyeur. I’m not a natural performer. I have to psych myself up for it. I always like to do new things. Some people make the same movie over and over again. I get bored and restless. I like to try new things. I’m trying to get better, I hope I get better at the performing part of it.

Gerhard: Don’t try too hard! What I like best about your performances is how authentically yourself you are. I like them for the same reasons I love Porchlight storytelling in San Francisco, you’re ‘a person’ up there. Your Pop-Up Magazine performance involving The Rainbow Man, John 3:16, epilogue was a case in point.

Green: I’m going to do a reprise of that at Sundance before the main event….


Sam Green

Gerhard: Ah, like you did at the Exploratorium before the ‘Fog’ show in San Francisco last year. A film about you chasing after a very slippery, ephemeral thing. So much of the mood of your work is in the soundscapes and you’ve worked with great musicians doing these projects, including Yo La Tengo. Who’s on board this time?

Green: This band I’m working with yMusic, it’s totally great. It will totally knock your socks off. I went to Carnegie Hall to see Dirty Projectors, six people doing chamber music, and yMusic opened for them. It was so big, so great. I went with a couple of film people, and we all said afterward, I gotta work with that band.

Gerhard: Which reminds me, what is the most difficult aspect of this work; is it the collaboration?

Green: The most diff part is that you can work on it endlessly. I’m still working. I’ll still be working the day of the show. Then you do a show and the next day you can change. It’s malleable. It’s a Keynote presentation. I remember I did the Utopia piece at Sundance and that changed over the next two years, tons. Which is both good and bad. You can finely tune it; you can adjust it; that’s great…. But: you’re never done with it.


‘The World’s Largest Shopping Mall’

Gerhard: From Universal Language to The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller and even back to The Weather Underground: you have a love of Big Ideas, especially ones that now appear misguided. It’s a very non-TED talk outlook—that though these ideas may seem big, they all shrink and fade with time.  How does The Measure of All Things fit in? What is it that you believe in? What’s your [joking] political platform?

Green: Let’s see. Um, ‘Increase the pay of all public school teachers!’ This piece is actually a pretty serious piece. I always really like to take something that’s seemingly silly and use that as a foil to bring up something more serious. The ‘Rainbow Man’ story is the perfect example of that. It’s a ‘dumb story’ out in the world. A guy gets famous for being on TV with a rainbow wig. But it becomes a parable about fame, about people’s obsession with the media. This new project about Guinness Book of World Record-holders, it’s silly, we all know it, the goofy records. But if you look closely at the Guinness Book of World Records, they are like like myths, ancient Greek or Native American stories, that help us understand the world and how it really works, if you read it a certain way, which has really resonated for me. This latest piece, it’s about fate and time and the inexplicable things that happen to us and the weird things we’re compelled to do. I find it endlessly interesting to look through The Guinness Book of World Records. I’m not interested in the parts of it that are the performative stuff. I’m much more interested in those who are in it who don’t want to be in it.


‘The Universal Language’

But to answer your question, what do I believe in? I do believe in the power of art, and that sounds maybe corny, but I believe art is an almost magical force; it can make human connection happen. This is the way I’ve experienced books or movies … I think that Roger Ebert has that quote that I think cinema is an empathy machine. I believe that 100 percent. Cinema is the most powerful medium for creating connection between people. You’re in a dark room with strangers and you subsume yourself in this collective experience. You’re totally open. That’s part of why I’m doing the live stuff, because it seems like it takes the tools of this empathy machine and maximizes them. The biggest images and the music that will totally wash over you. I’m trying to take the cinematic experience and heighten it, to make it as moving as it can be.


‘lot 63, grave c’

Gerhard: Both N-Judah and lot 63, grave c seem to encapsulate so much of your aesthetic: mournful and light-hearted all at the same time. Do you plan on returning to these kinds of art-film shorts? Any plans to incorporate this material into something larger?

Green: I just made this short stand-alone piece about fog in San Francisco; I still love doing those kinds of movies. Doing these live things is not my own direction these days. It’s sometimes daunting to think of taking on a five-year project. But I still love making short films, and I’ll certainly make bigger documentaries again, I love the form.

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