In anticipation of his visit to the Walker next week, documentarian Sam Green was kind enough to answer some questions.
1) Your short films Pie Fight ’69 and The Rainbow Man played at the Walker in the past, and this is your first appearance. What are you most looking forward to about your visit?
Yes, this is the first time I’ll be at the Walker. I’m looking forward to doing our screening there, of course, but I’m also excited to be in Minneapolis – I’ve never been. I’m hoping to maybe run into Prince at some point during our visit. (I wonder if he’ll read this. Prince??? You there?)
2) Do you consider Utopia in Four Movements cinema? How exactly do you define cinema?
Yes. I definitely do. It’s funny, the piece could be considered many different things: a performance or a ‘live documentary’ or even a fancy lecture. In some ways, I think it shows that many of these distinctions are partially semantic more than substantive. Because I am a filmmaker – I’ve made films before and am screening this in a film context, it is for the most part considered a film. With all that said, there certainly are antecedents in film history for this kind of thing: Lowell Thomas was phenomenally successful in the 1920s showing films and narrating them in person, there’s the Benshi tradition of live narration in Japan, or even the travelogues from the 1960s and 70s here. UTOPIA certainly is at the edge of what we might consider film today, but I do see it as being on this side of that edge. It is cinema.
3) Do you see your participation in Utopia as a form of acting or teaching?
Neither actually. What I’m doing with this project is definitely not acting. And I try to avoid anything that’s to pedantic or pedagogical in my work. It’s hard to find the right word for it… maybe “communicating” is right. Yeah, that’s probably good.
4) What courses do you teach at SFAI and USF?
I’m actually taking a year off from teaching. But when I do teach, I teach courses on the history of documentary and documentary production.
5) How much does improvisation play a role in Utopia, in terms of both the music and your narration? Or do you favor a more disciplined, scripted approach?
There’s not very much improv in this piece. It’s pretty tightly choreographed – the music, the images and the words. With that said, the more we screen the piece, the looser we get with it and the more we are able to play around. At every show, unexpected things happen, and the piece is never quite the same twice. At Sundance last year, someone asked a question in the middle of it! And we are always re-writing sections – tweaking things. So it definitely changes each show.
6) What’s your favorite documentary?
I get this question from time to time, and always feel like I am slightly disappointing the person who is asking when I say that I actually don’t have a single favorite documentary film. There are lots of filmmakers that I am very fond of and lots of films that I love and have been influential. I’m a big fan of Alan Berliner, Heddy Honigman, Adam Curtis, of course Herzog. Specific films that were reference points for me in making UTOPIA IN FOUR MOVEMENTS: The Power of Nightmares by Adam Curtis, Fast, Cheap and Out of Control by Errol Morris, and the live version of Brand Upon the Brain by Guy Maddin.
7) Do you have a Netflix account, and if so, what titles are at the top of your queue?
That’s a good question. I actually had Netflix a while back but canceled my account after a month or two. I have a huge stack of DVDs on my desk that I need to watch. It’s actually hard for me to watch films in a recreational manner. So at the top of my own “DVD pile” queue is: Wide Awake by Alan Berliner, Shutka Book of Records by Sasha Manic, and some short animations in Esperanto by a young filmmaker named Simmon Keith Barney.
8) How are you expanding the cinematic frame?
This goes back to question number 2. I am certainly not doing things that haven’t been done before. And there are other people who are doing great things with live cinema at the moment as well. I’m a big fan of Brent Green’s work – we have done shows together and I’ve learned some things from him about touring with a band. With that said, I do think that there’s a huge push that comes from technology towards online – everything is gravitating in that direction, away from a theatrical model of cinema and towards video on demand or streaming or downloading. I am not against the internet – it’s great for many things – but there’s also a huge difference in the way people engage with media online versus in other contexts – a theatrical context for example. I am creating films that will hopefully be meaningful for the people who watch them. I think that sitting in a theater is still the best way to make that happen. So, in some ways, I feel like what I am doing is pushing cinema in a direction that it’s moving away from. Doing something that can only be screened live and when Dave Cerf and I and the band are there, it feels anachronistic perhaps. But as I pointed out, live cinema is not new.