The Measure of All Things is a new live cinema performance by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Sam Green (The Weather Underground) with acclaimed chamber group yMusic. Here he discusses the film and his love of world records (book here for The Measure of All Things)
Sam Green on...
… describing The Measure Of All Things as a ‘pretty weird’ movie:
It’s a meditation on the Guinness Book of World Records. To me the book is very striking because in it are many records that say so much about Fate and how we live in a world we don’t understand. The basic building blocks of our lives are dealt with and evoked in the book, so my show is a meditation on that; a series of portraits of people, places and things, from the oldest person to the tallest person to the oldest living thing. In that sense, it evokes a kind of poem about fate, time and mystery of being alive.
… loving the Guinness Book of World Records:
Yeah – when I was a kid, I was totally obsessed with it and spent a lot of time just looking at the pictures. About 5 years ago I came across an old paperback copy of it and I was struck by two things; one – I remembered all the photos… looking at them I was automatically transported back in time to being a kid, but two – I was struck by the serious side of it, that it was, in some ways, a tragic, odd self portrait of humanity and the outer contours of the human experience. It really moved me. That’s where this came from.
… on the motivation to find record-breakers:
It was about putting together a poem that evoked the themes that I felt from the book. It’s an empathic impulse – a sense that we are all living with the mysteries of being alive. Take the guy who was struck by lightening seven times, he - in a way - is the quintessential person dealing with Fate in all its inexplicableness. He has no idea why he was struck seven times, and we all have that, to some extent; wonderful things happen to us and terrible things happen to us, and we never quite understand why. It’s all a mystery to some extent. The piece came out of trying to evoke that feeling.
… on choosing the subjects of the films:
That’s the fun part – I basically went through the book and pursued the things that resonated with me emotionally. Y’know, like the tallest man and the dolphin [Bao Xishan used his long arms to dislodge fatal plastic accidentally ingested by a dolphin at an aquarium] – I love that one. I had someone shoot him in Mongolia and got the footage of him with the dolphin, so it’s just a great story that hits all the right notes. It’s odd, tragic, and beautiful in a way. It was very fun to look into these.
… on the appeal of live cinema:
A lot of different things! I got started in it when making the film about utopia. I was a little grumpy about the fact that as a filmmaker now, you have to accept that people will be watching your work on their laptops whilst their checking Facebook. I do it – it’s how we do things now! We pay attention in fleeting ways on our computers – everything is a little more throwaway – and I didn’t want my work to be in that context. So there’s a lot of reasons why live cinema appeals to me; from aesthetic, to political to economic. I feel we’re being pushed by technology and the market all the time to be more alone with our devices, watching things in very fleeting ways. I feel, especially with cinema, that people coming together and having a collective experience is powerful – that’s the magic of cinema. I love that feeling when the lights go down and the movie starts, and I want my work to be in that world. I think there’s something much more meaningful about it. People often say ‘well so many less people will see your work if you do it this way’… y’know, you have to travel all the way, they have to travel to see it; that’s true, the audience is radically smaller, but I’d much rather have far fewer people have a meaningful experience – something that will linger with them for a while after – than for millions of people to have a throwaway experience when we watch a video online. Also, it is fun, I get nervous, it’s a challenge, and it’s great to work with musicians and travel around with bands. I just keep trying to see what the form can do. Each time I’ve done it, I’ve said ‘well I’m going to try and do it like this’. I’m still curious and inspired about it.
… on the fleeting nature of world records:
I’ve always liked that connection between the form and the content. In this case, the piece is about the fleeting nature of life, the provisional nature of all our efforts. In that sense, the form fits that. For example, the current oldest person in the world just died, so the piece is an organic, ephemeral work that changes and is never quite the same… which is how life is.
… on band yMusic:
yMusic is fantastic. They are a new music chamber group. I went to see the band The Dirty Projectors in New York and yMusic was playing with the band, sort of as their backing band. They played a few songs themselves to start the show and I was mesmerised. Their sound was huge. They had this epic, huge quality to their sound which I really wanted for this piece. One of the great things about the live form is that you can do so much more than you can with a regular movie. The music they play in a regular movie would probably be too much, but in a live context somehow it works and you give yourself over to it more. They’re at the nexus of classical and rock – it’s a really interesting new music world. They’re also very cool.
…on the most interesting person he spoke to in the making of The Measure of All Things:
I think the woman with the longest name. She has this enormous name which just goes on and on. Her mother gave her that name, so it’s not as if she created it herself. At first I thought it was just gibberish… like someone fell asleep on the keyboard… but if you look closely at it you start to see words. Her mother made this crazy long name, but within it there’s city names like ‘Paris’, qualities like ‘love’, there’s other peoples name’s from her family; it’s an odd and wonderful quilt of all these different pieces of ideas and aspirations… and it works! She likes it and gets attention from it. She was on Jay Leno and he gave her a driver’s license as a gag! It’s really interesting to me because there’s the idea that a name makes a person – you name a person and they grow into that name.
… on breaking a record himself:
The great irony of all this is that I did end up in the Guinness Book of World Records this year… and I didn’t even have to hula-hoop for 78 hours! They got in touch with me because they found a photo online of me at the quietest place on earth – an anechoic chamber – and it’s a photo of me holding a microphone. They asked me if they could use it to illustrate the quietest place on earth. I said of course – I always wanted to be in the book, but could never figure out how. I’m on page 74, right next to the ‘Most Valuable Tongue’.