'Love Song' to an Extraordinary Man

Buckminster Fuller's legacy
Sam Green narrated while Yo La Tengo provided a live soundtrack in a presentation of “The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller.” Sam Alison

“I must be able to convert the resources of the earth into higher and higher capability of service,” said the late R. Buckminster Fuller. “I must do more and more with less and less until I’ve reached a point where we can do so much as to be able to service all men in respect to all of their needs.”

Such a proposal, in an age of profligate consumption and limitless self-regard, sounds so radical as to be the stuff of science fiction, and in a way, it is. But from the moment of a kind of spiritual awakening, in 1927, until his death in 1983, Fuller, the renowned inventor, futurist, architect, designer, author, and early proponent of conservation and environmental stewardship, conducted his life as an experiment aimed at determining how, and how much, a single person could change the world to benefit all of humanity. 

In “The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller,” Sam Green, an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, narrates Fuller’s quest, in the form of a “live documentary” featuring still images, video, and an original score performed by the indie rock ’n’ roll band Yo La Tengo. Mr. Green and the band will present “Love Song” on Saturday at 8 p.m. at Guild Hall’s John Drew Theater in East Hampton. 

In the documentary, Fuller’s mission statement of doing more with less, delivered in a sweet, even childlike tone, is voiced over black-and-white film depicting him emerging from a geodesic dome (one version of which, designed by John Kuhtik, is installed at LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton). Although he did not invent it, Fuller named and popularized the structure in the United States. The dome, which he hoped would alleviate a post-World War II housing shortage, is but one manifestation of his noble pursuits.

Mr. Green, who lives in Brooklyn, said that he has been making “live cinema pieces” for about eight years. “I really like the form a lot,” he said, referencing an earlier project, “Utopia in Four Movements.”

At the outset, he knew little about his subject, he said. Learning that Fuller’s papers are kept in Stanford University Library’s storage facility, he investigated. “I imagined it was, like, five boxes,” he said. “I went there and realized this was the complete opposite. It was, like, 500,000 boxes!” Mr. Green had stumbled upon the Dymaxion Chronofile, the largest known collection of papers belonging to a single person. “It was all part of an experiment,” he explains in the documentary, “Buckminster Fuller’s grand, 50-year project to see if one person could change the world.” 

For a documentary filmmaker, Mr. Green said, “This was nirvana! I was very enchanted, and made a piece almost entirely from this Dymaxion Chronofile.” 

But who would provide the soundtrack? Fuller, Mr. Green said, “was utopian, in the best sense of the word. He thought the world could be radically different, better. At the same time . . . there’s a beauty to that dream, and a sadness, when you look around and see what the world is like. I had always been a fan of Yo La Tengo, and knew they combined those two feelings in lovely ways,” and, he said, “they love doing odd and new things.” 

“I can relate to that,” said Ira Kaplan, Yo La Tengo’s guitarist and vocalist. “I think there is something utopian about the three of us doing what we want to, and, I hope, making the world a little better. I feel like our eyes are open to things that are not the way we wish they were. We’re just trying to do our part to change that.”

As it happened, Mr. Green knew Emily Hubley, a filmmaker and the sister of Georgia Hubley, Yo La Tengo’s drummer and vocalist. (The Hubley family once owned a house in Montauk. The late John and Faith Hubley, the parents of Emily and Georgia, were animators; John Hubley created the Mr. Magoo cartoon character.) 

Mr. Green asked Emily to forward an email to the band. To his surprise, the response was enthusiastic.

“We were intrigued by working with Sam,” Mr. Kaplan, who is Georgia Hubley’s husband, said. “The more we got involved, the more exciting the Fuller aspect became.” The atypical form of “The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller” was also a draw, he said. “Sam’s done a number of live documentaries. I think it started with his . . . impatience, I guess, with the modern way of experiencing media, on your phone or something — you’re at the traffic light, watch another 30 seconds. We wanted an old-fashioned movie-going experience, where you’re immersed in the experience as it’s happening. But as a live thing, I think the four of us share a certain nostalgia for a period when you experienced it, remembered it, let it roll around in your memory.” 

“The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller” draws inspiration from old travelogues, TED Talks, and Japan’s benshi tradition, in which performers deliver live narration for silent films or translation for foreign movies. “There’s lots of antecedents in film history,” Mr. Green said. “The travelogue was a big form in cinema. This was popular in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, right into the ’70s. Somebody would go to some exotic location, do slides or 16-millimeter film, and show it and talk.”

Originally commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s design and architecture department, “The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller” has since been performed at venues including the TBA (Time-Based Art) Festival in Portland, Ore., the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. “We premiered in, I think, 2014, and have gone all over the world — Mexico City, London, Los Angeles, everywhere,” Mr. Green said.  

Now, he looks forward to presenting his live cinema in East Hampton. “It’s really fun,” he said of the performance. “I’m a big fan of Andrea Grover,” Guild Hall’s executive director, “so I’m really excited to come there and do it.”

Tickets for “The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller” range from $40 to $120, $38 to $115 for members.  

Yo La Tengo — left to right, James McNew, Ira Kaplan, and Georgia Hubley — and the documentary filmmaker Sam Green will present “The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller” on Saturday at Guild Hall. Jim Allen