At the Kitchen, Sam Green and Yo La Tengo Sing a ‘Love Song’ for R. Buckminster Fuller

  • You wouldn’t expect that the grandiosity of the translucent dome that R. Buckminster Fuller designed for Expo 67 in Montreal to translate on film, but for two nights this week at the Kitchen, Sam Green’s new documentary The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller came pretty close to capturing the spirit of the impressive construction.

    Footage from the fair projected on a huge screen in the performance space, thousands of people walking up through the structure, marveling at gargantuan paintings by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Tom Wesselmann. Meanwhile, to one side of the screen, the rock band Yo La Tengo wailed away, drummer Georgia Hubley building a gigantic crescendo on one cymbal as sun burst through the dome, as a monorail glided into the building, as streams of people queued up to have a look.

    Off to the other side of the film a man in a red shirt stood in front of a microphone, taking it all in. This was Mr. Green, who was there to narrate the screening of his film, a breezy and moving hour-long look at the storied inventor of the geodesic dome. The film is a collection of images and clips; the sound comes via live narration from Mr. Green and live music from Yo La Tengo. (It was commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Art for its exhibition “The Utopian Impulse: Buckminster Fuller and the Bay Area.”)

    Mr. Green narrated Fuller’s alternately tragic and inspiring story the way one enthusiastic, obsessed friend might share tales with another. “Look at how cool the Dymaxion car looked, especially compared to other cars of that era!” he crowed, as an image of people crowding around the sleekly aerodynamic car that Fuller debuted in 1933 flashed on the screen. It was designed to get 30 miles to the gallon, reach 100 miles per hour and seat a full 11 people. “Look at that!” he continued. “The Dymaxion car is so cool, in fact, that that’s Diego Rivera right there checking it out.” Sure enough, a very robust-looking Rivera was examining the car. “This is not a Photoshop trick,” he said. Sadly, a fatal crash scuttled that project.

    “I love this shit,” Mr. Green gushed, to photos from Fuller’s Dymaxion Chronofile, the voluminous archive he compiled throughout his life. (There came to be assembled over 1,300 feet of paper and 2,000 hours of video footage. It now resides at Stanford University’s library.)

    “It was all part of a grand experiment, Buckminster Fuller’s 50-year project to see if one person could change the world,” Mr. Green explained, as Yo La Tengo hummed along on keyboards, drums and guitars, setting a charmed, relaxed mood throughout.

    Fuller “speaks in the opposite of sound bites,” Mr. Green explained. “The real power of his speaking is in the vastness of it.” In fact, he once gave a lecture called “Everything I know,” sans notes, which clocked in at 42 hours. An enthusiastic Fuller expert, Hsiao-Yun Chu, appeared onscreen to tell of “accounts that occasionally [Fuller] would urinate down the leg of his pants so that he would not have to take a bathroom break.” And so there were clips of workers building Fuller’s home—a geodesic dome, naturally—in Carbondale, Ill., and photos of the domes that he inspired all around the world, plus a few snippets of Fuller sharing his grand utopian vision to college students in Alaska and hippies on “Hippie Hill” in San Francisco (as one TV news reporter termed an area of a park in the city), on a daytime show for senior citizens and to a reporter at the Expo.

    “With the knowledge we already have, it is feasible within 10 years…to have all of humanity enjoying a higher standard of living than anybody has ever known or dreamt of before,” he declares confidently in one clip, “and during which time we can phase out altogether the use of all fossil fuels, all atomic energy.”

    Of course, that has not yet worked out. “Like all utopian moments, this one had to pass,” Mr. Green intoned. “In a painfully fitting act of god, the Montreal dome actually caught on fire, the outer shell burned off in the 1970s.”

    Near the end of the film, Mr. Green showed a photograph of the gravestone beneath which Fuller and his wife Anne Hewlett Fuller are buried. There’s an extra stone with a quote from “Bucky.” “CALL ME TRIMTAB,” it reads.

    “That takes a little bit of explaining,” Mr. Green told the audience in a Q&A session following the film. “On a big ocean liner, there’s a rudder, and in the rudder there’s a tiny little mini rudder that’s called the trim tab. The way a huge ship turns, the tiny trim tab turns and that turns the rudder and then that turns the whole ship.” From the row behind me, someone let out a loud gasp.

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