In his newest live documentary, The Measure of All Things, filmmaker Sam Green ponders why we’re obsessed with the extremes of accomplishment, no matter how obscure or mundane they actually are. Whether it’s the man struck by lightning the most (seven times) or the quietest place on the planet (Orfield Laboratories in Minnesota, a specially designed room that’s -9 decibels), there’s a definite but difficult-to-explain allure to these records.
For much of the 20th century, the top arbiter of these accomplishments was the Guinness Book of World Records, the dense litany of superlatives originally created in 1955 by a beer company and written by twins Norris and Ross McWhirter to settle pub debates. Like many of us, Green was entranced by the book as a kid, and he uses The Measure of All Things to examine some of these record holders and how they might indicate something greater about humanity. The piece premiered at the beginning of this year at the Sundance Film Festival, and late last month was performed over two nights at The Kitchen in Chelsea.
For his live documentaries, Green narrates over a slide show of images and video clips while musicians play a soundtrack. His last work was titled The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, with music by Yo La Tengo. (Alexis Clements interviewed him about that documentary for Hyperallergic.) For The Measure of All Things, yMusic performed the first night and Brendan Canty of Fugazi played with T. Griffin and Catherine McRae the second.
Given its subject — the randomness of records — The Measure of All Things is much less cohesive than Green’s profile of the visionary Buckminster Fuller. While exploring the alien-looking bristlecone pines, the oldest individual organisms on Earth, or interviewing Mark Covert, who’s run at least a mile every day for over 40 years, can reveal the often invisible limits of our planet’s biology and human will, the documentary verges on the sentimental — for example with a segment showing the world’s former second-tallest man saving the day by pulling a piece of plastic from a dolphin’s mouth. And it neglects to pin down much about how any of these figures, whether the world’s oldest person (a fleeting title) or the person who stayed awake for the longest (264.4 hours), feels about being a statistic.
Still, though The Measure of All Things lacks precision in its subject, it is a visually beautiful example of how nonfiction material can be presented in a way that engages audiences, especially now that the Guinness Book of World Records has mostly been replaced by the internet. Green concludes with Carl Sagan’s narration of the Pale Blue Dot photograph taken by the Voyager 1 space probe. It prompts the thought: all of these extremes happen in such a fleeting way on Earth as it rotates out in the universe — maybe our embrace of records is a way of keeping a comprehensible measure in that seemingly infinite space.
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