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Remember reference books? For many reading this, they are as arcane as card catalogues (ironically, google those 20th-century dinosaurs). Not all of those heavy, dense books were like forbidding castles only to be ventured into when writing a paper. For those of a certain age, there was one book that put the fun back in perusing hundreds of pages of small print: The Guinness Book of World Records. There've been hundreds of movies based on books exponentially more absurd than Guinness, so it was with great anticipation that I attended a performance by documentary filmmaker Sam Green, whose The Measure of All Things, based on The Guinness Book of World Records, was shown at Duke University's Reynolds Industries Theater. Live accompaniment by yMusic, the outstanding six-person contemporary music ensemble, added to the unique nature of this multimedia extravaganza, presented by Duke Performances.
Guinness shares the name of, and traces its origin to, the Guinness Brewery. After a hunting party during which the employees of the company debated certain records, the company thought there were probably many people who sought this information, so soon The Guinness Book of Records (minus the "World" in the title) was born. Twins Norris and Ross McWhirter were the persons selected in 1954 to compile and produce what at first were just pamphlets to be given away. It soon became evident that the public loved this compendium of amazing and unusual facts and records, and eventually Guinness became the best-selling copyrighted book of all time.
It is ironic that, generally, documentary films tend to occupy the lower rung of popularity, as opposed to fiction films and TV shows, especially when tens of millions of people regularly watch horrible, so-called "reality" TV programs. That is changing, and local festivals (like Durham's annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival) have had a lot to do with making documentary films more recognized and saleable creative options. While not the first to do so, Sam Green has championed the "live documentary," wherein he presents his film, narrates it himself, and has live musicians playing.
Reynolds was only about half-filled, but that was still a pretty good crowd for an art form that has the misfortune of being associated with boring, dated school films. I am the first to admit that absent the live music and narration, I'd probably have passed on this. But, as Green showed in a prelude to The Measure of All Things, like fiction, it's all in the story and how it's presented.
Prior to yMusic coming on stage, Green narrated his fascinating, short documentary The Rainbow Man/John 3:16. It started out as a somewhat pedestrian look at a guy with a rainbow wig who was ubiquitous at numerous sporting events in the 1980s. He and his wife would also hold up their "John 3:16" signs – not all that unusual. But he followed her remarriage to an Egyptian man, was able to contact her, and discovered that several of her family's acquaintances turned out to be some of the 9/11 hijackers; a simple and short exercise in the cliché that you never know where a story will lead, but done with a wonderful sense of dread and paradox.
Green then brought out the six members of yMusic: Rob Moose, violin/guitar, Nadia Sirota, viola, Andrea Lee, cello, Hideaki Aomori, clarinet, Alex Sopp, flutes, and CJ Camerieri, trumpet/horn. yMusic, introduced to this community in a spectacular concert at the now musically defunct Casbah about a year ago, has again been in residence at Duke, playing original works by Ph.D. candidates in music composition. Their collaboration with influential living composers, their ability to play all styles and genres, and their impeccable music credentials – both academically and in the real world – make them one of the great contemporary music ensembles. Unfortunately, I am unable to supply any information on what they played or the circumstances surrounding this collaboration. There were no notes about this in the program, and despite contacting yMusic via Facebook, no details were forthcoming. Suffice it to say that they did not overshadow the content of the film or Green's narration, and their sensitive virtuosity was an enormous addition to this experience.
Speaking as one of the hundreds of millions of readers who have enjoyed Guinness – over and over and over – this was a fascinating glimpse of some of the more popular categories of records and amazing feats. More than just a simple newsreel of what film remains of these people – which could have bored as much as a school filmstrip – it was also Sam Green's perceptive description and analysis, as well as his mellifluous voice that kept us enchanted with each new adventure. When this was combined with yMusic's atmospheric playing, you had a media event that thankfully went beyond the equivalent of point and click on one's computer.
And Green went beyond the surface records to examine how they affected the record holders' relationships. Some of the more interesting ones were a man who stayed awake for eleven days, a forest ranger struck by lightning seven times who eventually committed suicide, a man who had never missed a day running at least a mile since 1968, and actual security film of a man stuck alone in an elevator for 41 hours. Questions were also raised about the limits of these records and if for certain ones we have reached the endpoint of what man is capable of doing. For instance, after Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile in 1953, there was a steady stream of further breaking of that record. Still, the final one occurred in 1999 at 3:43, and that has remained since. Some of these things got a bit predictable and cliché driven as Green pondered the earth as Carl Sagan's "pale blue dot" and a "what meaningless specs we all are" ethic at the end. Well, the ones who make it into Guinness may be a very slightly larger spec than the rest of us, and that may be enough to continue to interest all the average specs!
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