• 50 Years - A Million Thanks

American Masters Buckminster Fuller: Thinking Out Loud

Interview with Film Director Arthur Penn


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These excerpts were taken directly from Simon & Goodman's interview transcripts, and were edited lightly for clarity. The notation [question] indicates that a question was asked. However, the transcripts most often did not contain the actual question, so the filmmakers could assess the usability of the interview segment.

[question]

Well, I'd been at Black Mountain, by that point about a year. Black Mountain College down in North Carolina which was a...you have to understand, it was a most extraordinary college in the sense that it was not recognizeable as a college by any other of the available criteria. I guess it was a place made up of about 100 people including faculty and students, and the majority of the students, probably numbering 60 or so, maybe 65, who were in the case of the men at least, a little older than college students usually are, from having been in the army at that point. This was now 1948, and so there was this marvelous place with no real curriculum, no real classes, no real...no grades, no accreditation and nothing much else except a place where people tended to congregate. People who were somewhat on the periphery of society. Artists for the most part.

That summer, or maybe it was not even the summer, it might have been earlier than the summer, there was this fellow with these thick lensed glasses, and I had not heard of him prior to that. But I learned about him from various people who were working with him then, and he was launched on this idiotic idea of trying to build a dome out of venetian blind slats as I remember them, and...although he had built a dome out of something else, a small version of it that was really quite amazing, and...I remember they tried to build a dome, and my memory of it is of it having collapsed.

The campus was built around a lake, with a marvelous building out on stilts that was a sort of studies building for all of us who were there. Anyway that's when I met Bucky. He was just one of the folks around Black Mountain at that point.

[question]

Well, everything was special about Black Mountain College. It was a place such as...I don't think had ever really existed, you know? There...as I said there was a student body, there was a faculty, the faculty was largely...well not largely, but in part made up of...of professors from quite extraordinary universities around the country who were now on a sabbatical and wanted to come some place to work on a particular project of their own. Write a book, do a body of study, or whatever, and Black Mountain was able to provide them with a venue where they'd come down, bring their families, no salary, but they'd have a place to live, and food to eat and that was it. And we did some good part of raising our own food in those days, and if we didn't have any food, we just didn't have a meal, that was all, that was not all that serious...we were not that serious about food. It was a very barebones, threadbare place with no endowment, no accreditation. The only reason it only survived 15 years, and it could survive those 15 years for a couple of extraordinary reasons that probably can't be duplicated. Some visionaries had the idea of starting this school, and they started it, I think, I'm not sure but probably just prior to the Second World War. I think that's...my guess about the date.

[direction]

Thirty-three...'33. And it was just sort of hanging on and limping along. But then world events occurred, of a certain extraordinary character, which was that in Germany there was the rise of Hitler, and the creation of an enormous group of refugees who were some of the most remarkably talented people in all of Europe who were suddenly persona non grata, and forced out. And, although the United States had something of a welcoming policy, it was a peculiar period of, yeah we'll let you come into the United States, but we won't accept any of your credentials from Europe, because somehow that was just not the American way, so an awful lot of doctors for instance came in and had to take their medical exams over again. Psychoanalysts of world wide reputation had to go and sit for another medical exam. And we at Black Mountain were very fortunate in that people like Gropius and Albers, and Max Dehn who was a marvelous physicist and mathematician, came. So that a large part of our faculty population was made up of these absolutely extraordinary people who were able to make it to America, but couldn't get a job at an American university. Although they'd been pillars of the Bauhaus in Germany, which was a remarkable place.

That was part of what created the most extraordinary climate that was Black Mountain. Their presence, the knowledge by intellectuals around the country, and artists around the country that these people were there, and that there was an opportunity to come down there and just...and hang out, and exchange ideas, and I keep running into people, I ran into Alfred Kazin the other day at dinner and found out that he'd been at Black Mountain.

[question]

A goal? Survival. Survival was the goal of Black Mountain. It...no, nobody talked about a goal. We just were struggling to survive. It was a tough place, because nobody told you what to do. Once you were in, you were in and you were part of the community and you had total freedom, to do or not to do, and that's pretty lethal you know, and it wasn't all that uncommon that people kind of cracked up under that much freedom. So, that was a not infrequent occurrence there.

[question]

I think rather suspiciously, because at that point we...what I think what we knew of him was very little, so...the idea of something of a crackpot, you know? But it was clear he was not a crackpot, you know? What preceded him, I think was...I'm not at all clear about this, but I think he built an automobile called a Dymaxion Car, which was a three wheeled automobile. If my memory is right about this, the test model of it was involved in some kind of accident that had nothing to do with the design of the car, but it was utterly coincidental. But that immediately sort of marked him as nut, or...you know eccentric in the world of structure and...and scientific design.

[question]

Well he wasn't...Bucky didn't...nobody was brought to Black Mountain, people just came. You were intrigued by this community, this group of people, and then people just started coming down there. It was fascinating, and...I mean if you were to...if I were to rattle off some names, it's going to sound like name dropping, but you know William and Elain DeKooning were there, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Bucky Fuller, Isaac Rosenfeld who was a brilliant critic, Isaac Kazen, people like that were just constantly coming down. For a brief period of time, or a longer period of time. Bucky came down with the real intention apparently of trying to build this basic geodesic dome out of materials. But there was a larger purpose to Bucky, always, and...and a larger humanitarian and sociological purpose.

I remember a conversation with him, I don't remember how many people were participating in it, but not very many of us. We were sitting around in the dining room one day or something, asking him about this, and he said...his view was that he thought it was perfectly conceivable, that he would be able to provide housing for all the people of the world, with this basic geodesic dome, which could be stored...stacked in the airplanes, and then dropped from the airplanes down into India, and Pakistan, and the devastated portions of Europe as...as places were people would be able to at least have a habitat, and at the same time as one was listening to this, and it was intriguing and captivating, there was also a little sense of...he's whacko you know, because it can't...first of all he hasn't gotten the dome to stand up yet. Well, that of course was only a matter of time. A very short time.

[question]

I don't remember much of it. I didn't see it fall down. I remember the day...I remember Bucky, and a group of students walking over toward the shore of the lake, carrying these stops of white venetian blind material, metal material, and they were folding it together, and I wasn't paying much attention to it because that...that was not untypical for Black Mountain. Any such activity could be going on anywhere at any time, and nobody paid a great deal of attention to it. I certainly didn't pay much attention to it. But I remember some word...now whether I saw the dome up at all, or whether I saw it going up, I have a memory of that, and then I have a memory of seeing it, just flat again, alongside the lake, and a lot of head shaking, but then Bucky...and again this...I hope my memory's not playing tricks on me, I remember Bucky saying, he never expected it to be able to stand, but what he wanted to see was structurally how much integrity he could develop in...and it was apparently quite considerable.

He was an amazing guy. He talked in ways that were quite extraordinary. When my daughter got married, I remember I made a toast, and I quoted Bucky. Bucky said, in my perception a unit is always two, and that stayed with me for the very longest time, all the up until my daughter Molly got married, and I used that in my toast.

[question]

The play...the play...there's a play by Erik Satie, and I didn't know it, and John...John Cage knew it, and decided that it would be fun to put on a play, with Merce Cunningham essentially doing staging. Now, my role at Black Mountain was that of student most of the time, but a little part of it I got pressed into sort of teaching a class in acting. Not because I knew anything about it, but because I was interested in it, and the essence of the class was that we would sit around, read Stanislavsky together, figure out how to do these exercises together, see if we could do them. So, I had I guess some knowledge that...that I had acquired through this class of a little bit about acting ideas, acting techniques.

Anyway...so they started rehearsing, and somebody had the audacious, ingenious and absolutely nutty idea of putting Bucky Fuller in the lead of it. And he's supposed to be a...a big expansive personality, of...of a size, and here was Bucky who was quite an introvert. Nobody who has heard him lecture since then, can believe that. But it was true. He was terrified, absolutely terrified. I can't remember now who came to me, but somebody said why don't you come up and see if you can help Bucky to get him out of this state? So I did. I mean I went over to the dining room where they were rehearsing.

I looked at it, and I realized what the nature of his self-consciousness was, which is...he kept looking at himself, you know from outside, and he had nothing that was really engaging him in the play, except sort of waiting for cues, and waiting for lines. You know all the things that all early actors experience, but for him in a totally alien setting, with John and Merce carrying on, I mean they were very forceful personalities and had a very strong desire. DeKooning incidentally designed the sets, and Elaine, I just learned from a photograph I saw, that Elaine was in The Ruse of Medusa.

So anyway so what I did was, I got involved with Bucky, and I thought the best thing I can do here is make about as big a fool of myself as I can, and I started just rolling around on the floor and laughing, doing all the phony histrionic things, and saying to Bucky, you do this too, and that was essentially what we did. We rolled around to the point where inhibition becan to fall...you know we started laughing at ourselves and how ridiculous we were and we lowered the threshhold of ridiculousness and self scrutiny and embarrassment.



So John Cage and Merce Cunningham had the idea of doing this play by Erik Satie which is a play with music, and they had the brilliant idea of putting Bucky Fuller in the lead. So they started rehearsing, and lo and behold Bucky was absolutely paralyzed. Paralyzed about performing, paralyzed about being in this play. And anyway I had some experience with it, so they asked me if I would come in and sort of help Bucky loosen up and begin to talk now.

Now, if anybody who knew Bucky later in life, when Bucky would do four hour lectures on any subject in the world, would find this hard to believe, but he couldn't get a word out, he simply couldn't get a word out. So what I did was I simply decided that the best thing I could do was make a big fool out of myself, and make a bigger fool out of him, and we would just simply do it together, so we started rolling around on the floor and having...laughing exercises, and going ha-ha-ha-ha-ha until we started laughing...literally found ourselves doing and experiencing emotions that were really emotions that were...and pretty soon Bucky began to be pretty loose, and...and that was it. That's all I did, that's all I had to do with him.

Now he gives me credit...undue credit for having sort of...unleashed the...the great force of this dam that was Buckminster Fuller. It's not true, it isn't true, but...he did begin to lecture for an interminable period of time, and every once in a while we'd go to one of his lectures, and some mutual friends who knew about my having done this with Bucky would go, tsk-tsk, because we would be in the fourth hour of...a captivating lecture, but Bucky was never at a loss for words.


[question]

Well, I never really studied with him, but I know that he was pretty charismatic as a teacher. It was unusual to have that many students following him, putting up this geodesic dome. There may have been...you know 6 or 8, which was huge for a Black Mountain class. But he was an arresting personality, there was no question about it. There was a kind of visionary aspect to him, which was communicated out of this relatively shy man. But when he spoke about social issues and the nature of the world materials, and the prospect for the world, he was utterly captivating, utterly captivating and... quite remarkable, never met anybody like him.

[question]

Oh sure, sure, sure. Bucky...actually, it was interesting. I got a call from a mutual friend saying Bucky wants to have dinner with you, and I had dinner with him. And the issue was, Bucky Fuller was going to get an honorary degree from Harvard University, and I thought...that's terrific. When I got there and found out the story of it though, I understood what was the concern.

Bucky had been kicked out of Harvard, and so, to come back there was a traumatizing experience. And what he had then, was a kind of a revisitation of the anxiety that he experienced in being up on the stage in the Ruse of Medusa. So he asked me, you know, about some advice about what to do, and the advice I gave him was utterly simpleminded, it was, you know simply talk to those people that you care about. Don't look at anybody who is at large. Talk to Anne, talk to your daughter, talk to your...and that was the extent of it. We had a nice, lively dinner. It was not the only time...I saw Bucky quite often because he was a friend of Isamu Noguchi's from way back, and we knew Noguchi so some evenings we had dinner here a couple of times, and...like that.

[question]

Well in...in my terms, unabashedly I think he was a great man, a truly great man, a real genius. A man with a vision of the world totally different from any that I had ever come across. I, even unblushingly had used the comparison to Michelangelo. Not that he was the artist, but he was certainly the visionary in terms of the physical capabilities of things that were on that...up to that point unimagined, and I've always thought of him that way. I remember walking back from the park one night, through the park with my wife, back in the days when you could walk through the park, and out from having had dinner with Bucky and Anne, and saying just these things to her. Gee, I thought he was a true visionary, an utterly remarkable guy. A lovely person...just a lovely person, and she had great appreciation of Bucky, and they were very, very close, an extra-ordinary marriage. Extraordinary.

[question]

Well perhaps the legacy, that I understand at least, from Bucky, that there is a solution. There is a solution to it all, to the depleting planet, to the pollution. He was a most optimistic man, and believed that through the sheer powers of ratiocination, and...and mentation, that one could achieve solutions to these things, and indeed I think it really is in the realm of possible. I don't know that the world will ever be able to support a thinker like this, and be able to follow him, but that's my own pessimism intervening. Bucky was an optimist...because he had a vision that for him was as clear and lucid as it could be, that there was a way to solve it. Housing, food, population explosion, pollution. That was absolutely rare. I'd never seen anything like that.

[question]

No, no. No, I've never seen anybody like Bucky, and never...I can't imagine anybody who would be like him in film, in fiction. He was a fictional character himself. [laugh] Just endlessly...endlessly fascinating. And then when he and Noguchi would get together and talk about their young manhood in New York here, it was a hilarious evening.


[question]

A combination of what I remember, and what I remember hearing about Bucky was, he had had this real decline in fortune in the world. His car had crashed, he was broke, he was evicted. He was really down on his luck, and he had no place...no academic institution would accept him. So, somebody knew about him, and sent him a letter apparently inviting him to Black Mountain. What it was, he joined a lot of other people who couldn't get a job either in the academic world, for a variety of reasons. Some of the reasons I explained earlier, being refugees and not having American credentials. So Bucky came down there, and I think that was the turn in his life. That was...it was not untypical of Black Mountain, that it was a real...could be an epiphany for somebody, a way of really breaking loose from the circumstances, and having an experience that could start you on the rest of your life. And that was the remarkable thing about the place, and an awful lot of people, I think had that experience. Bucky certainly did.

[question]

Oh yeah, Bucky was a person who couldn't...who could not... not be well liked. He was a gentle, kind man, and...and he did speak of...as I said, with such enormous compassion. You have to understand that this is a world now, reeling after the Second World War, reeling, and here was a man who said, I believe I know how to house the people. I believe I know how we can better utilize our foodstuffs and materials, and it was such a large, compassionate view of the world that it took one's breath away. And there was nothing self-serving about it.

[question]

Well because sometimes the goals would seem beyond the realm of the possible. At that point, the geodesic dome seemed beyond the realm of the possible. No, a year later it was standing. Not too many years later it was the basic building of the Montreal Expo. I mean Fuller was, as a builder, as a visionary, as a person who utilized materials, he was a genuine visionary. When he extrapolated his vision, sometimes people would find it a little too gilded, and far too optimistic, but I think that we treat Bucky badly at our peril. I think he was a real...a real...a real visionary. No question about it. No question from me anyway.