PARK CITY, Utah—The Sundance Film Festival is full of stories about films being completed just hours before their first screenings, but A Thousand Thoughts, which premiered on Monday night, wasn’t finished at all. In fact, according to director Sam Green, it never will be. In recent years, Green has been developing a form he calls “live documentary,” which combines conventional documentary footage with his narration and live musical accompaniment. Introducing the film (or whatever you might care to call it) at Park City’s Egyptian Theater, he said he’d come to think of the idea of a static film that never changes its shape no matter how often it’s shown as being simply “nuts.”
Green expressed particular antipathy for music documentaries, which often squeeze a few seconds of this or that song in between clips of people talking about it. In A Thousand Thoughts, the music is the story. It’s more a concert than a film, a history of protean string ensemble the Kronos Quartet as told by the quartet itself. Kronos’ four current members—violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt, and cellist Sunny Yang—were placed on the Egyptian’s tiny stage in front of the movie screen, with Green standing opposite them, and as he walked the audience through the quartet’s history, from their founding in 1973 through their collaborations with era-defining composers like Philip Glass and Terry Riley to more recent work with the Inuk throat-singer Tanya Tagaq and the Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man, they played along, performing nearly two dozen compositions ranging from George Crumb’s “Black Angels” to the score from Requiem for a Dream.
At times, Kronos was effectively accompanying themselves, underscoring interview clips as they reflected on their 45-year career. Live scorings of conventional films can feel like an unwieldy compromise, a concert periodically interrupted by dialogue and sound effects, but in A Thousand Thoughts, the interplay and overlap is its reason for being. The ideas that normally underlay the quartet’s music are moved to the front, existing in counterpoint with the music itself. Composer Aleksandra Vrebalov, whose Sea Ranch Songs was performed in excerpt, observed in an interview clip that talking about music is “like trying to describe a perfume,” but that ephemeral quality was embodied in the interaction between image and sound, notes and words. Green introduced the performance by talking about “The Lost Chord,” Arthur Sullivan’s song about a transcendent musical accident that can never be replicated, and the idea resurfaced in an interview where Harrington talks about the idea of musical, and physical, decay. When a note dies, he asks, where does it go? After nigh-on half a century in music, he’s come to believe that it passes into the listener, who carries it with them long after it has faded into silence.
Although Green introduced A Thousand Thoughts as “something of an unauthorized biography,” it’s not much of a tell-all, more revealing philosophically than biographically. Its most striking moments are nonverbal, like the way the sunlight flits across Harrington’s face as he talks about the death of his son and Dutt’s life partner, and the departure of the Quartet’s longtime cellist Joan Jeanrenaud after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Instead of accompanying this tragic passage, the musicians sat silently in the dark as a recording played for them. Recordings, whether musical or cinematic, may remove the vitality of a live performance, but they can also bring back the dead and turn history back into the present.
The idea of Green selecting clips and images from his laptop while providing his own running commentary might not sound that different from a TED talk, but the addition of a live score transforms the experience. Part of the reason theatrical movie admissions have dropped so dramatically is the idea that the movie will always be available, that the film you miss this week will still be there next week and streaming a few weeks or months later. Concerts are different. A band comes through town once a year, or every few, and every show holds the promise of something happening that never has before or will again.
Film festivals hold a touch of that promise. A world premiere is a onetime event, and I’ll never forget watching Park City fall more and more in love with Once over the course of a few days, or sitting down to see Upstream Color with no idea what to expect and walking out feeling like someone had rearranged every molecule in my body. But as streaming providers use festivals as promotional showcases for movies that will be in their subscribers’ queues in a matter of weeks, and the electric atmosphere of a hype-saturated premiere produces reactions that later seem less like enviable exclusives and more like mass delusion, it’s easy to lose faith, or at least admit a few doubts, especially in a year when the next Get Out or Call Me by Your Name—both highlights of last year’s festival—stubbornly refused to materialize.
Fewer than 800 people squeezed into A Thousand Thoughts’ Sundance showings, and although the production will tour—including a stop at Columbus, Ohio’s Wexner Center Thursday night—its lifespan and its availability are severely limited. None of Green’s past live documentaries have been released in a recorded form, and there are no plans to do so for this one, either. So much of Sundance is premised on the future—which movies will be acquired for how much, which will figure in next year’s Oscar race—but A Thousand Thoughts’ moment is only a fleeting one. Watching it was the most joyous experience you could have at Sundance this year, but it was more like a shared secret than a breakout hit. There was nothing to buy after it was over, nothing to hype, just an ever-spreading grin and a warmth as elusive as perfume.
*Correction, Jan. 25, 2018: Due to a photo provider error, the caption misidentified the photo as a still from the film a Thousand Thoughts. It is a photo from the performance.