Tonight and Saturday, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts hosts collaborators Sam Green and Dave Cerf as they present Greetings on Behalf of the People of our Planet!: three "live documentaries" on three offbeat subjects. Their unique format combines film clips, still images, live narration and sound mixing in an event that is part film, part lecture, and wholly absorbing. The screenings at the YBCA will focus on the world's largest mall (outside of Guangzhou, China), the Voyager Spacecraft and its Golden Record, and the history of time capsules, both big and small.
Green and Cerf's eclectic interests will shape the screening. The Voyager Spacecraft segment, composed entirely from sounds and images hurriedly collected by Carl Sagan and a team of experts in 1977, will cover the history of the project as well as its utopic goals. While Sagan has already said much of what there is to say about the project, verbosely and poetically, there is still plenty of rich, resonant, and truly funny material left for Green and Cerf to highlight.
The World's Largest Mall tells the story of the South China Mall, a gigantic and nearly completely empty complex of stores, amusement park rides, and Venice-like canals. The "large chain business interpretation of quality of life" (as one sign proclaims) is an instant noodle billionaire's attempt to leave his mark on history. The mall's manager describes the situation as a real "build it and they will come scenario. He built it, but they didn't come." In the screening, quiet, almost still shots of the mall's desolate spaces are juxtaposed with clips of an employee, dressed as a Teletubby, prancing through a plaza.
"If Mao saw the South China Mall, the beautiful buildings, he would say, 'Oh my God!'"
In the newest of the three documentaries, An Illustrated Lecture on the History of the Time Capsule, Green and Cerf explore the grandiose and often comical history of the time capsule. Looking at the time capsule as an expression of cultural imagination and self-portraiture, Green poses the question: "What does it say about who we are today that, for the most part, we no longer bury time capsules -- that the time capsule itself has become a thing of the past?"
The 1938 Westinghouse Time Capsule ofCupaloy, buried during the New York World's Fair, set to be retrievedin 6939.
Green and Cerf developed this form of live documentary almost by accident. While editing Utopia in Four Movements -- at the time a fairly straightforward documentary -- they were asked to make a presentation about the film. Setting the live presentation to music in an effort to make it more interesting, both for them and their audience, they realized they'd created something else altogether. According to Cerf, it was a revelation: "Let's just make this movie like this." Utopia in Four Movements became a live documentary, first screened at Sundance in 2010 before traveling around the world on the film festival circuit.
Depending on the setting, Green says, the presentations can be classified as documentaries, performances, or simply fancy lectures. The best part of it, both Green and Cerf agree, is the flexibility of the live event. Instead of arriving at a venue with a finished, packaged product, hoping for the best, they present a mutable thing. Between one screening and the next, they can tinker to their hearts' content -- a both thrilling and nerve-wracking prospect.
The end result is thoroughly engaging. Despite the fact that so much is happening, transparently, all at once, the focus in the screenings is always on the material. Eloquent narration is matched by crescendos of sound, smoothing transitions between clips and moving the audience seamlessly through the narrative. While the material blends together, magically, in the moment, the audience also participates in a communal viewing experience, putting the project on a vastly different level than traditional documentary film. This is Green's declared goal. There is no way to watch snippets of a live documentary online, distractedly and on a tiny computer screen. While fewer people will see Greetings on Behalf of the People of our Planet!, for those who do, theirs will be a more meaningful and edifying experience.
Greetings on Behalf of the People of our Planet! will screen on September 22 and 24, 2011 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. For tickets and information visit ybca.org.