Buckminster Fuller: Thinking Out Loud
1996, NR, 100 min. Directed by Karen Goodman, Kirk Simon. Narrated by Morley Safer. Starring John Cage, Arthur Penn, Philip Johnson, Merce Cunningham, Spalding Gray.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., March 29, 1996
Upon hearing the name Buckminster Fuller, certain phrases spring instantly to mind: geodesic dome, Spaceship Earth, Dymaxion car. A major theoretical thinker of the 20th century who died in 1983, Fuller's been revered as a visionary, assailed as a crackpot, and has answered to the description of just about everything in between those two polarities. This new feature-film documentary creates a comprehensive portrait of this American original that ought to be equally satisfying to Fuller connoisseurs as well as novitiates. An iconoclast for most of his life, Fuller came into wide popularity only during his latter decades. As an indefatigable public speaker, he traveled the earth lecturing at universities and other forums to cultish followings of youthful Sixties acolytes. His global concept of Spaceship Earth jump-started subsequent generations of ecological thinking and public planning. And he was certainly ahead of his time in the sense that not only did he think globally, he also acted globally. The documentary gives us a good sense of those years by incorporating abundant footage from his free-form lectures, as well as ample testimony from currently well-known figures who have experienced his spell. Whether they be believers or disbelievers, all give witness to a seductively influential modern thinker and inventor. The movie also examines Fuller's earlier pre-guru years when he was still a hustling architect and inventor. In the 1930s he rode the streets of New York in his three-wheeled Dymaxion car that got 30 miles to the gallon and seated 11 passengers until an unfortunate tragedy sidelined that idealistic project. His plans for geodesic housing that would be dropped on-site from blimps might have achieved success in the post-WWII housing boom but for the fact that Fuller halted production in order to reconfigure his design which, in turn, caused the company's bankruptcy and downfall. This movie's portrait of Fuller is both thorough and long overdue. It errs only in that it includes so much personal testimony that, after a point, some of it becomes redundant. Still, Buckminster Fuller: Thinking Out Loud does a good job of decoding the operating manual that guided this one-of-a-kind visionary.