Fascination with the Guinness Book of World Records is a kind of shared human experience. We all probably at some time – most likely as a child – flicked through that great volume to ‘–ests’; the biggest, the fastest, the more-than-anybody else. Many of those records may still resonate in your memory somewhat, the world’s fattest twins riding on their bikes, or Lee Redmond the woman with the world’s longest fingernails. The Guinness Book of World Records was the inspiration behind Sam Green’s newest project ‘The Measure of All Things’, which will show as part of Brighton Festival. Like many kids, Green read and was fascinated by the various records, but on coming across the book later in life, he saw it as more than just a book about ‘–ests’. Instead, he saw it as a sort of record of the human experience.
“About five years ago I came across an old copy,” he says, “and I was struck by two things. One – that I remembered all the photos. Looking at them I was instantly transported back in time to being a kid. Looking at it, I was also struck by the serious side of it. In some ways it was a tragic, odd and beautiful self-portrait of… us, of humanity, of the outer contours of the human experience. It really moved me.” From that point, Sam Green set forth to make ‘The Measure of All Things’, looking at the very human stories behind many of these superhuman records. Instead of focusing on the freak show aspect, Green instead arranges the film as a series of portraits; for example looking at the world’s most powerful supercomputer circa ’92 (which only had 32MB of memory) and the story of Roy Sullivan, who survived being struck by lightning a record six times, but eventually took his own life. Sam calls his portrait series of places, people and things “a poem about the mystery of being alive”.
Obviously the plot of this documentary is fascinating, but equally so is the way that Green gets his story across. For much of his career, he worked as a traditional documentary filmmaker, most notably making the Academy Award nominated ‘The Weather Underground’. However, in 2010 with ‘Utopia in Four Movements’, Green began restructuring his films into a ‘live documentary’. An on-going form, his projects deconstruct the elements of a documentary and rebuild them as a live event. Green narrates the piece on stage, supported by film clips, images and a live band (the chamber group yMusic and a trio made of Brendan Canty, T. Griffin and Catherine McRae). It is all the elements of cinema deconstructed and reconstructed for a live audience, resulting in a unique and collective experience. Sam Green’s motivation in continuing to explore this form comes from a variety of places. Most notably to create an alternative to how we consume film today.
“As a filmmaker now, you have to accept that people are watching your work while on their laptops, while they’re checking Facebook… it’s the way we watch things now. I’m not against the Internet, I’m not a Luddite, but we pay attention in a fleeting way. I didn’t want my work to be in that context. Having a collective experience and giving yourself completely over to something is powerful… That’s the magic of cinema. I love that feeling when the lights go down and the movie starts. I want my work to be in that world.” There are of course issues with this. Our Netflix watching habits half-exist simply due to the convenience of having a cinema library at our fingertips. Whereas Green’s live work is much more momentary, and harder to attend, but this is something that he acknowledges.
“I’d much rather fewer people have a meaningful experience, something that will linger with them for a while than millions of people have the kind of throwaway experience when we watch a video online.” Green’s acceptance of this fact also pairs the concepts of ‘The Measure of All Things’ form with its content. The live film format is about creating moments which have meaning but are fundamentally fleeting, and that reflects a lot of the film’s message about these record holders. It looks at their wonderful, beautiful and sometimes sad records and lives, but acknowledges that they are short-lived.
One of life’s little ironies unfolded during the making of ‘The Measure of All Things’, as Green actually ended up in the book itself.
“I didn’t even have to hula-hoop for 78 hours. At some point in my research the Guinness Book of World Records got in touch with me because they found a photo of me at the quietest place on Earth (the anechoic chamber at Minnesota’s Orfield Labs). And there’s a photo of me holding a microphone, so they asked if they could use that to illustrate the quietest place on Earth. I said ‘of course!’ because as a kid I always wanted to be in the Guinness Book of World Records.”
There will be three performances of ‘The Measure of All Things’ at The Old Market as part of Brighton Festival, taking place at 7.30pm on Sat 23 May and 4 & 7.30pm on Sun 24 May.