Sam Green & yMusic: The Measure of All Things
Duke Reynolds Industries Theatre, Durham
Saturday, Nov. 15

Documentarian Sam Green delivered a worthwhile moral at the end of a hybrid film-lecture presentation at Reynolds Industries Theater Saturday night: “No story ever really ends.” Unfortunately this came at the end of his six-minute opening act, a delayed coda to his 1997 film The Rainbow Man/John 3:16, not his hour-long feature presentation and collaboration with new music sextet yMusic, The Measure of All Things.

After making his name in 2004 with the Academy Award-nominated documentary The Weather Underground, Green has stepped off the conventional filmmaking path to venture into the wilderness of “live documentary.” Narrating his film work onstage, Green blends the Japanese silent film-era benshi tradition with formal turns from TED talks and radio programs like This American Life and Radiolab. Factor in musical collaborators such as Yo La Tengo and yMusic to provide a live soundtrack and you have a multi-channel performance evening. But you still have to deliver content over those channels. In this project, Green falls short.

The Measure of Things, which was “loosely inspired” by the Guinness Book of World Records, is a starting point rather than a finished product. Green considers his childhood fascination with the book’s assortment of firsts and bests against their relative irrelevance today. Why does he still thrill at the grainy newsprint photographs of the obese twins on their motorcycles and the park ranger who’d been hit by lightning seven times? Why did a generation latch on so deeply to the Guinness book? And why has the book all but vanished from the consciousness of the current generation?

The answer, of course, was distributed throughout the pockets of the audience: the Internet. Today, the Guinness book is irrelevant almost the moment it’s printed. Its contents can’t rival the weirdness of the average day’s Facebook feed. Perhaps wary of producing a hackneyed, generational grumble about information accessibility debasing actual knowledge in today’s Google-era kids, Green unfortunately enacts that debasement rather than attempting much in the way of analysis.

Switching between slideshow and film, he considers specific record holders. We learn that Roy Sullivan, the human lightning magnet, eventually killed himself out of loneliness. We tour news footage of a succession of the world’s oldest people. We see a Chinese graduate student reciting tens of thousands of pi’s digits. Green gives us a few factoids about these characters, but doesn’t drill down into Sullivan’s loneliness, capture the reflections of the extremely old or reveal the purpose of memorizing a chunk of the infinite. Always, he steps right to the verge of these insights before switching subjects. And even when he half-asks “why?” he doesn’t make the effort to answer it.

The most compelling and tantalizing sequences in the performance were Green’s actual visits to record holders. He takes his mic into the quietest place in the world—the anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories in Minneapolis—and picks up the disturbing tapping of his tour guide’s artificial heart valve. He visits Mongolian giant Bao Xishun, who at 7’9” was the world’s tallest man until an 8’3” guy in Turkey stepped forward. He shoots footage of Mark Covert (most consecutive days a person has run at least a mile: 16,437, since surpassed) and Randy Gardner (most consecutive hours awake: 264.4 hours) in their homogeneous suburban settings, where they look like normal guys going about otherwise unremarkable lives.

The record holders, unfortunately, have little to say. Their unique accomplishments have become matter-of-fact. Even records that seemed profound at the time, such as Roger Bannister’s sub-four-minute mile in 1954, are not worth knowing today. Green talks us through the history of the mile record. He briefly surmises that the record might be a representation of our species’ limits, but he doesn’t push his surmise farther. He doesn’t ask why Bannister is still something of a household name while the current fastest-miler, Moroccan runner Hicham El Guerrouj, is all but unknown? Do we not care? Or is there a cultural bias against, or a subtly racist ambivalence toward non-Western runners? Or do we simply not value record-holding as much? And if so, why not? C’mon Green, get in the game here!

Green found a kindred spirit of sorts in Covert, who noted that the one question about his record that he didn’t have an answer to was “why?” Why do this record, why continue to run each day? Green shoots Covert limping up the street toward his camera, capturing the physical torture of the prolongation of his streak. But the car that the camera’s mounted on accelerates and leaves Covert behind instead of lingering to consider answering the question that Covert has no answer for.

At best, Green provides a gentle statement of our existential condition—we are mortal, therefore our accomplishments are futile and temporary—without pushing himself toward a scarier speculation about existential freedom. If he’s learned a lesson other than “time marches on” from this lengthy investigation, Green’s not yet ready to share it.

In this respect, Gardner provides the moment of real gravitas in Green’s film. He sits on his front stoop smoking a cigar, many decades removed from the sleep record he set as a teenager in 1964. Mixing in footage of Gardner’s television appearances and photographic documentation of his insomniac ordeal, Green narrates Gardner’s fatalist reflection on the insignificance of his record: “You’re on the list.”

For a moment, Green seems to empathize with Gardner’s sense of futility, establishing the shot of Gardner sitting on his front stoop before stepping self-referentially back to show Gardner, the camera, and the lighting rig in the frame of a second shot from a slight distance. If Green’s not going to give us answers, he should at least describe the situation with some detail. Instead of gently accelerating away from Covert to give us a vague sense of cinematic closure, make the abrupt cut to show Gardner’s smallness as well as your own project’s artifice.

A more practical question that went unanswered in The Measure of Things was: Why exactly was this a live performance? Both physically and interpersonally, Green added little by being there. If the seed idea was being a benshi for the experience of paging through the Guinness book, this failed.

Benshi did more than stand onstage while a film was projected, saying the characters’ lines in different voices and narrating the action. More importantly, they also stepped back from the moment-to-moment action of the film to comment upon it as cultural material. This wasn’t a minor thing—the benshi were the primary draw, not the films. Green was missing this second, higher benshi function. His narration could just as easily have been a pre-recorded voiceover.

Nor did yMusic’s presence add much beyond a recorded soundtrack. One could have easily forgotten that the sextet was in the theater. The music never stepped to the fore over the course of the show. It was always a calm, flawless background groove. Wonderful stuff, but at all times secondary to Green’s visual work.

If The Measure of Things is Green’s latent lament for the wonderment inherent in pre-Internet knowledge, then his collaboration with yMusic suffers today’s Internet conveniences. It seems born of Skype sessions and Google folders, rather than a deep engagement over ideas mulled together over time. It seems like a commissioned assignment, not a collaboration.

Admittedly, few people likely want to buy a ticket to hear some nice music while a documentarian tells them that their lives are pointless and they’re going to end up in the grave. But if you’re not going to take cues from the record holders and meditate upon death and futility, at least apply meditation to their accomplishments and aspirations.

Green just didn’t take this project far enough. But he still has time—thankfully, no story ever really ends.