Creative Voices

The Utopian Cinema of Sam Green

By Dan Cowles

Documentary filmmaker Sam Green is a haunter of archives and a lover of ephemera. Like an anthropologist exhuming the bones and broken plates of lost cultures, Green discovers his movies through research, digging through boxes and combing through drawers to better understand his culture.

Posters for some of Green’s early films—his subjects included Esperanto, an eccentric football fanatic, and the Weather Underground.

Green’s early films often focused on low-level and transient cultural icons, ubiquitous in their day but virtually forgotten later. Short films like The Rainbow Man/John 3:16, about a wig-wearing NFL fanatic, and Lot 63, Grave C, about Altamont Speedway Free Festival stabbing victim Meredith Hunter, are representative of his early work. His 2002 documentary, The Weather Underground, about the short-lived early ’70s militant radical group, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary.

A Thousand Thoughts is one of Green’s newest projects—a “live documentary” that chronologically tells the story of the Kronos Quartet’s groundbreaking multi-decade career. 

After the success of Weather Underground, Green—maybe somewhat counterintuitively—moved into a new form of storytelling: live documentaries. Through movies like Utopia in Four Movements and The Measure of All Things, he has developed a singular style, combining well-crafted Keynote presentations and a deadpan delivery with lovely musical accompaniment from bands like Yo La Tengo and yMusic. He continues down that path with his most recent project, A Thousand Thoughts, a live cinematic collaboration with the Kronos Quartet.

Green is fascinated by lofty ambitions and grand ideas, even if those ideas are sometimes delusional. His subjects include the constructed language Esperanto, the futurist and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller, and holders of Guinness World Records. He’s attracted to utopian endeavors and noble follies, but always as someone aware that building the perfect world is not possible—or perhaps even desirable.

Hear from Sam Green yourself, in this video profile by Electric Park Films.