"The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco," is a well-known quote attributed to Mark Twain. Except as far as historians could tell, Twain never actually said those words. Regardless of the origins of the witticism, its sentiment rings true to anyone who lives in San Francisco. Ours is a cold city, better known for its overcast grey skies than California sun. And then there's the fog, an ever-looming presence that engulfs the city's rolling hills and neighborhoods on a moment's notice. San Francisco's fog--and the San Franciscans' love-hate relationship with it--is the subject of Sam Green's new documentary, Fog City, which debuted yesterday at the Exploratorium science museum.
Green, a filmmaker whose 2002 documentary The Weather Underground was nominated for an Academy Award, has been working on Fog City for the past several years as part of the Exploratorium's Artist in Residence program. But unlike Weather Underground, Fog City isn't a traditional full-length documentary. Yes, the 30-minute piece is a composite of shot footage, interviews, archival video, and film clips--the ingredients for what we know as documentary film--but the narration and music is all performed live on stage by Sam Green and the band The Quavers. It's an experimental format Green calls Utopian Cinema--the word utopia literally means "no place," and Green's films only exist in the place and time that they're performed. Fog City will never screen in a movie theater; it'll never be available on Netflix. It's an ephemeral film experience in which every screening is unique, and a business model that Green thinks could be the future of independent documentary filmmaking.
Green has experimented with this format before, with his 2012 film The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller. That film, in which he collaborated with celebrated indie rock band Yo La Tengo, followed the life and career of the infamous designer and futurist--the guy responsible for the geodesic dome. While video clips and still photos streamed from a laptop, Green narrated over the imagery from a script while the band played an original score accompaniment. Fog City follows the same format, which Green has said was inspired by the narrated travelogues that were filmed as a form of virtual tourism in the first half of the 20th century.
On paper, this kind of live performance sounds like a glorified lecture--a fancied up TED Talk. And for sure, those talks are a form of performance as well. But the difference in Green's performances is that the focus isn't on the narrator or narration--you're not being taught something or attending to see someone--it's on the film and footage. Green and his cinematographer Andy Black spent months shooting the landscapes and people of San Francisco, weaving together those shots with interviews they conducted of locals, writers, meteorologists, and even the Golden Gate Bridge's foghorn operator. Green's narration--his thoughtful script, measured speaking cadence, and calming tone--are complements to the video, not competing with it for your attention. The same goes with The Quavers' musical performance, which finds a right balance of subdued ambiance and lively crescendo as the film hits its peaks. As a viewer, I was very engrossed in the film, only every so often taking a step back to appreciate that this was indeed a real-time performance.
The film and scripting itself is a lovely composition: insightful, funny, and sentimental. There are off-the-cuff moments in the interviews like when residents bicker on camera about whether fog should be revered or despised, a scene in which the city's foghorn operator reveals his high-tech method for deciding when to activate the foghorn (he looks out a window), and the disappointed look on tourists faces at the top of San Francisco's Twin Peaks on an especially foggy day. Fog City isn't about finding some hidden meaning in fog or answering some timeless question, it's a heartfelt tip of the hat to an aspect of nature that San Franciscans are intimately familiar with and even anthropomorphize.
That narrow appeal is one reason Fog City probably wouldn't work as a normal documentary, or one that requires widespread distribution to make up its costs. With his Buckminster film and Fog City, Green believes that the economics of live performance are more sustainable than that of pure film screenings. There are no film distribution costs--it lives on his laptop--and theaters that invite Green and others performing live film pay "performance fees", which is higher than a screening fee. It's akin to indie musicians increasingly making more of their money by going on tour than by selling albums. And like those touring shows, it's easy to miss out on a performance if you don't know about it. Fog City and other live films are a good reminder to support your local arts community and to keep an eye out for what's playing at local film festivals. You'll never know when something great will come rolling in and be gone before you can catch it.
Just like, well, San Franciscans know what I'm talking about.