Be here now — that’s how John Lennon described the feeling of living in the roaring ’60s. Dressed sharply in a dark suit and venerable spectacles, Buckminster Fuller did not strike one as a hippie. But sitting amid a gathering of hippies on Hippie Hill in San Francisco, Fuller was, very clearly, their “dome guy.” A prolific inventor, whose portfolio ranged from cars to words, Fuller — subject of The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, presented by director Sam Green at Willard Straight Theater Saturday night — conceived of the geodesic dome as the most efficient form of enclosure. As an apostle of sustainability, Fuller was at least 40 years ahead of his time. Alongside the economist Kenneth Boulding, Fuller popularized the notion of “spaceship earth” in the late ’60s. Intelligent design, Fuller theorized, was a means to world peace. If resources could be fairly shared, countries would stop fighting over them.
Thanks to Cornell Cinema, Sam Green, Academy Award-nominated for The Weather Underground, introduced the playful and prescient architect to a sold-out crowd. The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller — its title a nod to T.S. Eliot’s early masterpiece Prufrock — is the story of a man who set out to change the world, and did. As images projected across the freshly-renovated theater, Green narrated and Yo La Tengo, the Hoboken band beloved by critics and loyal fans, supplied a reverent soundtrack dominated by twinkling, synth-infused guitar melodies. A love letter is always intensely personal, and the “live documentary” format allowed Green to share intimate and stunning moments with the audience. After showing a sequence of geodesic domes around the world, Green revealed, with perfect comic timing, that the geodesic chicken coop was his favorite — and that this was all courtesy of Google Images.
Green wryly appended a warning to the anecdotes he recounted: Fuller was a master of self-mythology. Mired in depression and grief, following the loss of his young daughter and business, Fuller headed to Lake Michigan with the intention on taking his own life. But that day he had a mystical encounter. A voice told him to not to carry out his plan. In one version of the story, Fuller levitated.
Universities provided a hospitable environment for Fuller’s realization of his many visions. Cornell, much to the audience’s delight, was a landmark stop in Fuller’s travels. Some of the film’s most stunning shots were those of architecture students constructing Fuller’s trademark dome on the Rand Hall rooftop. Isn’t it strange, someone remarked, to go around the country talking about Cornell? Green responded that it was, but since Fuller did so much travelling, the Cornell emphasis didn’t seem particularly out of place. But this episode had an unfortunate end. The Cornell dome was struck by vandals (the very idea of “dome-haters” puzzled Green) and was never completed.
“Dare to be naïve” — a phrase Fuller liberally used — encapsulates the strange blend of optimism, clarity, quirkiness and intelligence that makes Fuller such a fascinating character. Imagine saving every item that passes through your desk, everything from Western Union receipts to scribbled diagrams of high rise apartments that could be transported ready-made between countries. It sounds like an episode of Hoarders, but this compulsion of saving every scrap of memory made perfect sense in Fuller’s hands. In Green’s documentary, an interviewee who spent a few years sorting out Fuller’s gargantuan diary at Stanford termed the collection a startling piece of “conceptual art.” And it is. Fuller’s obsessive documentation of his life is reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s. But where Warhol was closed, and perhaps darkly so, Fuller was open and always radiated a vision of light.
A sultry and supple acoustic set by Yo La Tengo completed the evening. The band’s Freewheeling show, in all its organic excitement, rode well on the enthusiasm of a high-spirited crowd. It’s tempting to describe the band’s sound as a mix of Fleetwood Mac, Lou Reed and Simon and Garfunkel, but it seems inappropriate to go further with that. The band quickly made it clear that they didn’t care much for sounding as they did on their albums, or for any kind of rule, really.
The dim lights of the theater accentuated the stark beauty of the band’s opening songs, and the session took flight with wide-ranging questions from the floor. Guitarist and singer Ira Kaplan moderated the discussion with liberal wit, which he apparently honed through improv comedy lessons. Bassist and former parking attendant James McNew, when queried about his role in Megan Eckman’s puzzling documentary The Parking Lot Movie, mused about the death of movies. The band took a break from quiet songs (Kaplan recounted a disastrous show, at which the band played softer and softer until the logical conclusion was to stop altogether) to launch into an impressive, impromptu rendition of “Emulsified,” the brutal rock anthem off its 2002 album Fakebook.
We don’t go to World’s Fairs anymore, Green observed earlier in the evening. These visions of the future, which hark back to the Great Exhibition of 1851, seem more at home within the quaint confines of Epcot, where an edition of Fuller’s trademark dome resides. Where is that optimism, that curiosity about the future? To Fuller, who had lived through the throes of industrialization, 1970s America was utopia, despite its widening economic and political fault lines. Watching Fuller deliver lecture after relentless lecture in great halls across the country and hearing Yo La Tengo play so spontaneously and with such spirit, invokes both nostalgia and panic. “Do I dare / disturb the universe?” Fuller’s answer was always a resounding “yes.” The overwhelming question is how many can say the same today.