Radical Curiosity by Rebecca Solnit

Each of them starts with a question. I recall that  The Weather Underground (2003) came out of a question about what would move people to to turn to violence in protest of their own country’s policy, though Sam puts it a little differently: “How can one have political hope that is a sober and tough-minded hope, not a cotton-candy hope?” The Weather Underground members believed that they might be able to stop a war and change the world, and though they failed their ambition or hope or hubris defines in some ways their moment in history.

In fact, all Sam’s films come out of questions about the nature of things, of motives, conditions, possibilities, hopes, of that and a delight in quirkiness, tenacity, tenderness, and extremes. There’s a version of sophistication that consists of not asking questions as a strategy to make it seem either like you know the answers or the answers aren’t worth knowing, of pretending to be whole and complete and in need of nothing more, even the answer to why someone made up a language in the early twentieth century and a whole lot more people would share the dream of a universal language.

So Sam made a film about Esperanto called The Universal Language that became one of the pieces of his live cinema piece Utopia in Four Acts. “That was,” he wrote me, “an exploration of the question what happened to the fantastic notions of the future that people had 100 or 75 or even 50 years ago? What happened to our ability to imagine a future that is fanciful and pleasurable and full of delight?” That was a difficult project and one I saw at many phases as Sam wrestled with both the ideas and the medium of documentary film, asking of one what it meant and the other what it could be.

After The Weather Underground was nominated for an Oscar, when the obvious thing to do was to ride that wave by making more documentaries in the same vein, Sam took a left turn of sorts instead, asking foundational questions about the medium of film and the conditions in which we watch them. I recall him being taken aback by the way that films could be watched, or half-watched, inattentively, on laptops and phones, getting smaller and less compelling, as a factor in his move toward what he calls live cinema, projected films in which he narrates the equivalent of the voiceover live onstage, with musicians likewise live playing the soundtrack. Maybe there’s a kind of archeology of questions, with strata of assumptions and obliviousnesses atop each other to be scraped away.

Creative work requires asking questions and the very act of doing so is the act of admitting ignorance, incompleteness, desire, of being in process rather than finished. Question and quest are cousins; to have a question is to be on a quest for an answer.

Great creativity is often the act of asking bigger, deeper questions, of digging away at the foundations of assumptions on which our everyday lives rest, the messy foundations, half rot, half shards, on which we stroll around oblivious until someone points out why it is the way it is or that it could be different. Sam Green and I have both had the good fortune to lead open-ended lives of inquiry, with projects that begin with questions and the curiousity behind them, lives of finding things out or at least getting lost and and finding interesting things along the way.  

Though as I thought about my friend’s body of work, I realized that perhaps one of the differences between us is that though we both ask searching questions at the outset of a project, I sometimes tend toward answers, and I’m often more didactic, wanting to nail down what something means or what the solution is. Sam is, I think, more interested in setting up the question and letting it continue to resonate, like a tuning fork, in opening up questions that are in some sense unanswerable, or perhaps it’s that he leaves the audience to find its own answers. That is, he seeks to explore questions rather than answer them.

His subjects have been eccentrics and people who went to extremes, revolutionaries, the world’s oldest people, the world’s tallest man, the world’s quietest room, a radically experimental string quartet that has lasted for almost half a century, the peculiarly foggy weather of San Francisco. Always people swim up toward the camera in the films to share their enthusiasms, knowledge, affections, sorrows, secrets: his subjects are often also the curious, the explorers and experimentalists, people who are themselves on a quest or carried along by questions.

One of his films that has the tenderness about life and loss present in a lot of the films is lot 63, grave c,  a meditation on how someone at the center of a famous event and erased—in this case how the victim of a notorious crime in a legendary event had disappeared so thoroughly that his grave was unmarked and forgotten. The victim was Meredith Hunter, a Black eighteen-year-old stabbed in the back by a member of the Hell’s Angels biker gang at Altamont, the Rolling Stones’s ill-begotten attempt to have their own Woodstock that deteriorated into ugly chaos. The concert was much discussed as the place where the idyllic dreams of the 1960s died but the young man who actually died was often ignored.

The forgotten, neglected, marginal, overlooked are often his subjects. Though even with the prominent, there are strangenesses and mysteries: of his live cinema project about R. Buckminster Fuller, Sam tells me the founding question was: “How could this one person hold these two very disparate impulses? On one hand an engineer’s sense of rationality and clarity and math and logic, but on the other hand he was also a dreamer and great utopian and poet.” 

The word radical means in contemporary terms the politically edgy, often used for the far left, though the radical right is now a familiar term, but the word comes from the Latin radix, or root, and to be radical can be to go after the root causes or the roots of things. The best questions go to the roots of something—and the word radical has to do with roots in its origins—to dismantle assumptions, dig up new possibilities, find the old underlying assumptions and dismantle or replace them. To question might also be radical in that it can be destabilizing; authoritarians and protectors of the status quo want to be unquestioned, want curiosity to wither away. But curiosity is itself radical, a constant destabilizing of how things are. Authoritarians don’t want people asking questions, curiosity is always subversive, and maybe always radical.