Issue 10 : Spring 2006






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Dave Cox interviews Sam Green

by David Cox

15 Feb 2006

Sam Green Sam Green is one of America’s most dynamic and successful independent documentary film makers ( His film “The Weather Underground” was nominated for the Academy Award in 2004, and played in theatres all around the world. For subject matter he tends to focus on the eccentric, the political, and the media-savvy marginalized. Example films are “The Rainbow Man, John 3:16,” which records the rise and fall of the fright-wig wearing sign-bearing intervener of large-scale televised sports events and “Pie Fight 69,” chronicling the actions of a group who wanted to protest the conformism of the San Francisco Film Festival with a massive public pie fight, filmed by the pie-throwers themselves. His short film “N Judah” is a mesmerizing view of the commuters of the MUNI in slow motion, rendering the alienated, individualized faces of the passengers as the microcosmic shorthand for the spirit of the times.

“The Weather Underground” revisits the tumultuous times of the USA in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the country was polarized between those who supported America’s war of aggression in Vietnam and those (mainly the young majority who faced the draft and more-than-likely death on the battlefield) who were willing to contest the daily televised bloodshed along with the official lies which underpinned it by any means possible.

“‘Weather Underground’ [is] a more overtly political film and a film about trying to get past cynicism and despair and finding some hope and engagement.”

For the Weather Underground (named after a line in a Bob Dylan song “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows...”) this included bombing symbols of US government and corporate power centers. Hounded by the FBI, the group remained fugitive for most of the 1970s. Praised by the counterculture for their brazen attacks, the group, like the movement they emerged from, eventually faded, giving way to the notorious 1980s decade of greed-is-good yuppie self-interest.

His most recent film “Lot 63 Grave C” poignantly identifies and ruminates upon the significance of the unmarked burial place of the all-but-forgotten young black man Meredith Hunter who was the tragic victim of a Hell’s Angel stabbing, captured on film during the ill-fated Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont speedway in 1969.

I interviewed Sam at the Atlas Café on the 29th January 2006.

David: Do you identify with these lost souls (in your films), lost to history through the miasma of time and conservative conformist mediated spectacular society?

Sam: Wow what a question! I hate to say yes ... but yeah, I guess if a person keeps making films that circle back to certain subjects, the subjects resonate with that person and so, in some sense I must, I don’t know.

David: To you, what do the different main subjects of your films have in common, if not that sense of being lost amid the media, fame, and (their) ideals?

Rollen Frederick Stewart a.k.a. 'Rainbow Man' Sam: I don’t know. I think there are some common themes that run through the different stories but there are some differences too. I mean, when I made the “Rainbow Man” I kind of painfully identified with that guy in some ways. (He’s) kind of a lost person needing some affirmation from society and anybody who makes films I think if they’re honest with themselves or makes any kind of art or creative thing, I think some element of it is like a person trying to get affirmation.

You know, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I could definitely identify with him in some way. And I felt that was a political film and in a personal way. To me it was about this guy who was an archetypical American: totally alone, no family, no real culture, no community, no values other than what he developed, what he learned on television or through the media. So to me, that film on the surface was a silly story but underneath it was a critique of super market capitalism and what it does to people emotionally.

But the “Weather Underground” was in my mind at least a more overtly political film and a film about trying to get past cynicism and despair and finding some hope and engagement. But I guess “Pie Flight 69” and the new film I just did “Lot 63 Grave C”, it’s about history that falls through the cracks and marginalized people trying to somehow connect or, like, force with the center to acknowledge them or something like that, which I think anybody in alternative media or anybody sort of with a mind that’s working today probably feels marginal in some ways, I mean we are marginal unfortunately.

David: Or we have been made marginal.

Sam: Yeah.

David: What role do contemporary media play in the retelling of these stories? Do you see yourself at least in part as the official finisher of these unfinished stories?

Sam: Well I got this great book called The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia by David King. Have you ever seen that book?

David: No.

Sam: It’s an amazing book. It’s about photographs and history in the Soviet Union. It follows certain photographs of leaders and it was (under Stalin for the most part) as people were sent off to Siberia they would be airbrushed out of photographs. And it’s fascinating to see because a guy will be sitting next to Stalin in one photo and then he’ll be gone.

David: Like Trotsky for one.

Sam: Yeah, They were really skillful with the airbrushing so you would never know that they were there. It was fascinating and then over time somebody else would disappear. Towards the end it would just be Stalin sitting there. It was like just chilling and fascinating and it’s so crude in a way, we look at that and think how crude! But one thing I’ve always felt is that the market, and market capitalism does the same thing but in a super sophisticated way and we don’t pay any attention to it. We live in an increasingly visual culture. If you want to tell stories and make an impact, in many ways you have to now do that visually – especially when you want to communicate with younger people. To tell the stories that I've gravitated towards, I've needed archival footage, and often that footage belongs to people who charge outrageous amounts of money to use it. The TV news networks, which in many ways own and control the recent visual history of this country, can charge up to $80 per second for their material. This is a tragedy!

The Craig Baldwin approach is great, you know you just ... you’re working with the detritus of society and you don’t worry about stuff like that. But the way I’ve worked I want it to be more. I want things to be out more, I want to be connected to larger society. And so you end up having to pay for this shit or steal it and you’re sweating that you’re going to get sued and stuff like that and so to get back to this book. To me, and this is probably not an original thought, but it seems that the market does the same thing where certain things just get lost. If you don’t have the money to tell a story it’s not going to be told. And it’s not an accident what gets told and what doesn’t.

David: Are you familiar with Greil Marcus’ work? For example, his book The Dustbin of History?

Sam: Yeah.

David: Marcus writes about that phenomenon, what’s considered in and out of history and how the criteria of what’s in and out can vary with the times. And Noam Chomsky talks a lot about that too, with his discussion about for example the relationship between the Republicans and extremist Islamic fundamentalists over the years. For example (in the 1980s) the Mujehadin in Afghanistan and how at one time they were the allies because they were opposed to the Soviet Union and thirty years later they’re the enemy because they are doing the same thing they used to do but now they are opposed to the US. So that kind of selectivity of history and the selectivity of officialdom.

Sam: But with this stuff I really feel like it’s very concrete in a way. I was able to make a movie about the Weather Underground because I was really interested in it and I thought it was valuable and I’m white and I went to graduate school and I can write grant applications and somehow over a long period of time raised enough money to make this movie. So you know in some ways you could say that’s ‘marginal history’ and it’s ‘subversive’ so it’s not going to get told, and that’s kind of true because it wasn’t in the mainstream media but somebody somewhat on the margin could do it, but there was a parallel group called the Black Liberation Army, they were an underground revolutionary organization that was an off-shoot of the Black Panthers, so it’s a way more dramatic story, and in some ways way more interesting than the Weather Underground and that story is never going to get told. I would hope to be wrong but it seems like that really is subversive! The Weather Underground was kind of middle class kids and sort of radical, but that (the story of the Black Liberation Army) is very raw.

David: It just won’t be told through the official channels.

Sam: You are right about that but there’s no way that somebody is going to make a documentary about that on PBS and some kid in Iowa is going to watch it and like say “oh wow the BLA, I never knew!” That’s not to say that being completely underground is worse than being on PBS, I don’t think that at all, but I do think that there’s a sort of fight, an ongoing battle for the minds and imaginations of people in this country and if you’re completely underground you’re reaching some people definitely but there’s tons and tons of people you aren’t, so, but I’m not being judgmental about that.

David: Do you see yourself as a journalist or a film maker or both or what?

Sam: Both. I mean I don’t really know. I went to journalism school, I love journalism, I feel like I work in a way that really stresses research and stuff like that, so I love journalism. Obviously doing a documentary film in some ways I don’t know what to call myself really; “a documentary film maker” kind of works.

David: Your films seems to emphasize people who invest a lot of personal energy, hoping to see a big outcome from their relationship to the media, only to ultimately remain on the outside after brave and bold attempts to penetrate society.

Sam: Ouch!

David: So there’s this kind of Quixotic or David and Goliath element to each of the films. What are your thoughts on that idea put forward by Griel Marcus, that sort of “secret history”?

Sam: I love that and digging out those kinds of connections are fascinating because these things don’t happen in a vacuum. Almost everything is inspired by something else following up. I love that with the Weather Underground it traced that back to make different connections. From that too there were things that made me feel like I was on the right track with that film at least that was Raymond Pettibon who had done a video with Sonic Youth in the 80s called “Weatherman 69” and it was really a terrible tape, but it’s funny and it made me feel like there was a thread that ran from the Weather Underground at that time and it ran through punk and hardcore and kind of a sensibility and a sense of the world and cynicism and kind of a dark humor, which still resonated. And so I felt when I was making that film that I could take that story and inject it into that thread through underground culture and it would spark.

David: I’ve written in my notes that I’m old enough to remember the Weather Underground actions on the news. I was in England at the time (and just a kid) but I heard about it. One thing that struck me that looking at your film and hearing them (each) reflecting on what they used to do is that what the Weather Underground lacked in a sense was the sense of their project extending further than the narrative strength of their own time. They were like ‘in aspic’ in the early 70s.

For one thing they describe the Vietnam War ending in 1975 which actually didn’t happen. The Vietnam War continued well into the early 80s. The Vietnamese fought the Cambodian’s well into the early 80s so in a sense the Vietnam War continued. But to them (the Weather Underground) the end of the war was really the end of the American involvement in the war. That in a sense defined some of the limits of their project, the one thing about the Situationists is that they viewed the revolution of every day life as the ultimate aim. So in a sense the Weather Underground were quite conservative about what constituted a revolution.

They were young people in their early twenties. Sam: With all that stuff I think it’s important to keep in mind that they were young people in their early twenties. They were American, most of them had probably never been outside of the United States. Their perspective wasn’t super broad and in some ways they were just a very, like, traumatized protest movement. They had just seen this death and destruction day in and day out on TV and were in a frenzy to stop it. People have often asked me in the context of the film, “What did they want to do? If the revolution would have happened what would they have done?” I don’t think they were that scientific about it, I think they were political people, they were activists, they weren’t artists. Personally one of the drawbacks or weaknesses in their project was that: they weren’t imaginative enough.

David: They weren’t French enough!!

Sam: They weren’t French enough.

David: The French never make a separation between art and politics, at least the most radical ones.

Sam: Which is healthy.

David: Who was the audience for “The Weather Underground”?

Sam: That was something that was really important because I started making films in the late 90s and it’s hard to even remember what the ‘90s were like at this point they were so different from today.

You know, I grew up in the 80s; I came of age in the 80s. Most of my friends were people who were into radical cultural stuff but nothing overtly political. You know I was thinking the other day, and for some reason William Burroughs came into my mind, and I haven’t read Burroughs in a long long time. But I was thinking how perfectly kind of 80s and 90s Burroughs was. Because he had a very radical political sensibility but there’s something very cynical about it. Burroughs probably never protested against the Vietnam War.

David: He wanted to join the CIA at one point.

Sam: But I’m sure that at the heart of what I’ve read of him I’d argue that his values – he’s obviously not a cynical person and a warm cuddly person but he’s anti-authoritarian but also pro- individual and there’s a certain amount of empathy and compassion in his work but – I’m getting a little off track but the point I’m trying to make is that at that time people I knew were into radical cultural stuff but there was no sense that you could do anything about the world. I felt like there was a lot of important history. The 60s, the shadow still hung over people. That idea that “there’s no way you can change the world”.

So it seemed like a good story to take and sort of retell in this context and maybe perhaps spark a bit of a notion of being critical about the US in terms of foreign policy and the government lying to you and stuff like that. The person I made it for was sort of like a 22 year old who knew nothing of the left, had no connection to the left and no real knowledge of the ‘60s.

David: It’s quite an educational project.

Sam: Yeah but not in a didactic or heavy-handed way, but yeah totally. There’s no other way that people were going to hear about The Weather Underground. I mean it’s not in school, you are never going to see it on TV, it would just be gone.

David: I think the success of the film bears witness to the accuracy of your idea that there’s a group of people that have an appetite for this hidden part of American history, because in a sense the horror of the Vietnam war is what was really driving them (The Weather Underground). They were also pretty media savvy, which would have helped, middle class enough to know how the media operated.

Did any of the people who went to see the film see any correlations between the times we’re living in today politically, and the times of the Weather Underground lived in their underground days? Many of them did see it as a continuum.

Bring the War Home! Sam: It’s hard for me to say, I’m certainly not the authority on how people react to it, but I would hope it’s hard to watch the movie and not make a connection between what was happening then and what’s happening now. I mean I made the film as a kind of parable or metaphor in a way.

David: You started before 9/11, before the whole collapse we’re experiencing now. To me it seems that most of the subjects are kind of more embarrassed more about that than they are of anything else – that the bomb culture seems to be associated more with people who are right now more than left, that the Islamic extremists (for example) are more on the right than on the left in terms of what they are trying to do.

David: The montage at the end, Jane Fonda, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Ronald Reagan, seems to represent the ‘final-nail-in-the-coffin-of-the-dreams-of-the sixties’. Is one of the reasons you made the film to redress what you saw as a neglected path, an important part of the US and the history that was made to disappear? Why did you make it, is it to redress this time which in a sense has been forced to disappear?

Sam: For me personally, the reason I make stuff is always hard to say. I just love stories a lot and get kind of obsessed with things. When I was a little kid I got totally obsessed with Big Foot. You know Big Foot? For several years it was just like thinking about Big Foot all the time, and I wrote letters to people who’d seen Big Foot and stuff like that and just kind of totally focused.

David: Is that the folkloric aspect of Big Foot that you were attracted to?

Sam: I don’t know I can’t remember what it was, but I can see that there’s something that later when I’m kind obsessed with this subject to make films I can see that that’s the same behavior. So it’s not so much an intellectual thing as a kind of visceral emotional thing. And so with this I think what drew me to this story of the Weather Underground is growing up in the 80s I was living in Michigan and kind of hanging out at the 7-11 parking lot a lot as a teenager and knowing that, feeling sort of just the very vapors of the 60s and 70s, you know buying a dime bag of pot, or going down to the white monkey pipe store, you know – the head shop. It was still the 60s and feeling somehow that I was living in somehow in the shadow of the collapse of that and feeling the cynicism and unengagement of me and my friends was somehow a product of that.

So in hindsight I can see looking back I can see that the film was somehow an effort to look at the wreckage of that time and try to pull out some hope or try to excavate something hopeful and something that would inspire engagement in a complex way.

David: I found it quite funny because there’s Jane Fonda in Vietnam and then she’s doing aerobics and you’re obviously having fun with the material.

Sam: That was the only part of the film that was autobiographical or at least that I knew first hand. All this stuff I had to read about I was always nervous that I wasn’t getting it right but with that I lived it, I knew it was true!

At some point I just happened to cross the Jane Fonda work out tape and I’d never seen it, and I put it on and I was totally mesmerized. If you’ve never seen it she’s so telegenic, she’s such an amazing on screen presence and it’s so weird and at this point so dated and it’s completely mesmerizing. So part of the reason I used it was I loved it so much!

David: What the yuppie culture had in common with the hippie culture, I mean what they adapted was the zeal and enthusiasm to harness anything left wing – they took all the enthusiasm and ‘we can do it’ and just commercialized it. Jerry Reuben as the ice cream king and whatever and Abby Hoffman who’s the slightly defeated one.

Sam: Jane Fonda’s fascinating though because every decade she’s a perfect incarnate of that decade. So she was “Barberella”, she was “Hanoi Jane”, she was the exercise lady, she was Mrs. Ted Turner.

David: Now she’s the anti-Iraq campaigner.

Sam: Yeah but now she’s a Christian too.

David: I didn’t know that.

David: Do you think that most Americans consider the Vietnam war as significant, only in so far as American’s were involved?

Sam: Oh yeah, I don’t think that most Americans know that there was any war before or after or that there was anybody else involved with the Vietnam war and our part of it.

David: As an American, how do you deal with that kind of myopia?

Sam: I was talking to somebody the other night who said how different the world would be if every American student had to leave the country for a certain amount of time. I mean it’s true it’s a huge country and most people never leave. I think there’s a statistic that the percentage of the country that has a passport is very small, I think it’s like 20%-30%.

It’s frightening that Bush had never left the country until he was president. So of course you’re not going to have a great understanding of other cultures and the rest of the world if that’s your experience. I mean the frightening thing is that people with that little experience outside of the US are making decisions that affect people all over the planet. I think it’s a tragedy.

David: I thought it was interesting that the Weather Underground was so into group sex and pleasures of the flesh as revolutionaries, etc., but they ate only pasta with garlic butter and oatmeal! Couldn’t they have broken the rules a bit, say had tomato sauce with their pasta?. Why one pleasure and not more than one?

Sam: I don’t think they even saw group sex as pleasure. I think it was more duty.

David: That’s the Protestant side of pleasure.

Sam: Exactly.

David: So they had to suffer like peasants. It’s such a contradiction in the film that they had all this fun in the bus and everything and they ate only oatmeal.

Sam: I think that was fun for some people but not so fun for others, the group sex. They were obviously middle-class kids who in an effort to psych themselves up to embrace violence, which was a really scary unknown thing for them, felt like they had to become new people, and part of that was smashing their bourgeois privileges, having wild sex and it’s like smashing their inhibitions. I think they’re suspicious of pleasure.

David: So it was work more than fun.

Sam: It was destroying their identity. Mark Rudd made a point that I didn’t use in the film but he said if you look at what was happening right at the beginning of the group’s time, and the group sex and stuff was only at the beginning, he said that these were the classic techniques that cults used to break down people, you know group sex, constant criticisms, denying pleasures and personal space all this stuff undermines your strength and identity as an individual and melds you into a group and melds your interests into larger interests. So I don’t think there was anybody who was consciously saying ‘okay we need to break people down and lets do this and this’ but it just so happened that those were things that broke people down and made the group more cohesive.

David: In terms of the Internet and distribution for media it seems that the focus is very much on how media is distributed. As a film maker who perhaps prides himself on choosing subject matter that is a bit edgy and about marginal people and causes and so on. What’s your view on the changes that are happening in terms of the playing field in terms of distribution of the media and all the different formats that are out there?

Sam: Well I personally think it’s a complicated situation and there’s reasons for hope and reasons to feel kind of pessimistic in terms of distribution. I mean, I heard that there’s this idea that with the net there’s this idea where you can see things all around the world produced by people anywhere relatively easily and stuff. My own personal take on that is that that’s great but I think that sitting at home in front of your computer is not necessarily a very engaging or empowered position.

And the idea of people coming together and actually watching things, to me, is really important and that’s seems like it’s getting harder and harder. One thing that I was really struck by in doing the research and learning about the Weather Underground is that how much easier it was to live then. And you talk to any older film person in San Francisco and they’ll tell you these stories about having a house for six people, it was thirty bucks-a-month rent.

It’s really difficult to get by here now. So the amount of time people have for cultural things, screenings, running venues and stuff like that is a lot less and so I think the changes in the economy in the past thirty years – at least in this economy but I think it’s a pretty international phenomenon – have squeezed not only the middle class people and families but also artists and it’s a fuck of a lot harder to maintain a vibrant underground culture at this point.

I mean ATA is still around and that’s fantastic and I’m super happy but I’m nervous for stuff like that. It’s very fragile and if the squeeze stays on, that kind of stuff is going to suffer.

I mean you can do political organizing over the internet but nothing is a substitute for personal face to face connections and meeting people and exchanging viewpoints in a sort of intimate, face-to-face setting. I think that’s invaluable, and invaluable in terms of making change.

David: It’s one of the great things about the United States is that it has a history of social movements that are themselves born through the absence of state intervention. You compare Australia to America and in Australia most film makers assume they can get a grant from the government and that kind of shakes their thinking as to what they can do. But here one thing that struck me when I first arrived was that everyone helped each other out and they had to. The only way they could have a hope and prayer of getting something made was to, well, in a nice way, ripping each other off.

Sam: It’s true!

David: Or another way of saying it is just help each other out. But it’s a gift economy. Which when it works benefits everyone to some extent, but it’s really a necessity born from the broader social contract. But also in San Francisco it enjoys a long history because of the cultural influence of the beats and then the hippies and the punks and so those lipstick traces go back a long way and there’s very few film makers of a certain generation that are unaware of those important connections culturally.

So what I find with my students is that they’re often completely cut of from that history and they only know about what’s on the mainstream channels. The last one you made, for example Meredith Hunter, there again is another eulogy for a forgotten time and one thing that struck me after I’d seen the film is that it could be used as a fundraiser to build a grave for the guy.

Sam: Well I’m going to try to do that actually. It’s $500, and I’m going to try to scrape it together because it made me sad. I was talking about the guy doesn’t have a grave stone and somebody said oh I read somewhere that Janis Joplin bought a grave stone for Bessie Smith who didn’t have a grave stone.

David: Well you’d think that Mick Jagger could fork out, he spends that probably on hair cleaning products.

Sam: To wipe his ass.

David: Or tooth paste.

Sam: What a fuckin’ asshole.

David: I’m reminded of the Genesis Porridge song about Brian Jones (‘Godstar’). Because to him the greatest Rolling Stone was Brian Jones, who was forgotten and buried without anything, he just died mercilessly in that swimming pool. That sense of the Rolling Stones being answerable to the people that lie dead in their wake, surely the Stones could come up with something.

Sam: Well they did give his mum some money, like a settlement, I didn’t talk to his mom, I don’t know what happened.

David: Not that they’re necessarily responsible.

Sam: They were indirectly responsible. That story too, one of the things that kind of drew me to it, we were talking about Lipstick Traces and this idea of the reverberations of culture and stuff, and that, to me ultimately, Altamont was a piece of San Francisco history, like this implosion that had ripples that went out all over the place and this poor guy is right at the centre of it and in some ways became this tiny historical footnote and yet as a person was completely lost, completely obliterated.

David: He’s almost a sacrificial lamb in the 60s mythology. But you know that sense of unfortunate outcome, in a sense the Beatles played their last gig here too, and so did the Sex Pistols. I mean for some reason San Francisco seems to be the place where things end!

Sam: Crash and die.

David: As well as being – the reason they play here is it’s supposedly utopian. But there’s this flip side as well. Like the elephant graveyard of utopianism.

Sam: I’m trying to stop. I kind of want to do something that’s small and completely different. I feel like in some ways I’m getting a little bored of my own ideas.

David: The themes are recurring too often?

Sam: Yeah. I want to do something that’s happy. I’m a little bummed out because I didn’t set out to make a super-sad movie. But I think I did. It’s a lot harder to make a happy movie, it’s really hard.

Transcribed by Fehraz Lateef