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Live on screen — SFIFF: Sam Green teases out Utopia and the possibilities of documentary

By Johnny Ray Huston

April 20, 2010 SF Bay Guardian

All those with curious minds, step right up, we have live cinema waiting for you in this dark room. The idea of “live” or performance-generated movies has taken on a new vitality recently via the light-projecting likes of Bruce McClure, whose ear-splitting and eye-blasting appearances in San Francisco usually sell out. On a smaller local level, Konrad Steiner’s neo-benshi programs have united local writers and a wide variety of filmic subject matter in creative and sometimes entertaining ways. At the San Francisco Film Festival, live music by bands for silent works has become a reliable main attraction. But Sam Green’s and Dave Cerf’s new meta-documentary Utopia in Four Movements adds a new facet to the phenomenon: instead of utilizing an over-familiar voice-over, it unites live narration by Green with a musical performance overseen by Cerf, allowing for degrees of spontaneity and change.

Utopian, isn’t it? At the Mission bar the Phone Booth on an early Monday evening, Green can’t help but tease out his thoughts on the very word. “To me, utopia is almost a metaphor for hope, or hope in the imagination,” he says, shortly after we’ve been flirted with (and flashed) by one fierce female patron. “It’s about trying to be hopeful these days, which is hard. Utopia is almost a way to make up hope. In some ways it’s so preposterous. The word even has negative connotations these days — people are told not to be utopian.” Half an hour later, he returns for another analogy or two: “Utopia is a thing that never really exists. It’s like a flower — it always wilts. Even if there’s a moment of great utopian energy, it can’t last.”

Utopia may not exist in fully realized forms, but the quartet of mutations in Utopia in Four Movements (five if you count the movie) fascinate as real-life fables. The first segment explores Esperanto, which was invented in the late 19th century with the aim of its becoming a universal, international language. As Green puts it, Esperanto is “a wonderful idea that can’t be,” an idea that he illustrates with short direct portraits of contemporary Esperanto speakers that, uncannily, takes on a colors-of-Benneton feel.

Esperanto has also yielded some memorable black-and-white cinema, namely a 1965 Esperanto horror film shot in Big Sur by Conrad Hall, which stars a pre-Star Trek William Shatner. San Francisco movie maniacs may recognize Incubus through the efforts of Will The Thrill and Other Cinema’s Craig Baldwin. “William Shatner wrote a memoir in which he talks about it,” Green says, before adding some information that reflects Utopia’s ever-changing nature –and utopia’s pitfalls. “I’m trying to do an interview with him because he’s practically the most famous person to have spoken Esperanto. But the world’s most famous Esperanto person is probably [financier] George Soros.”

The idea of utopia isn’t new to Green, whose best-known feature The Weather Underground (2002) digs deep into the multi-faceted realm of ’60s radicalism, riding out its actions and repercussions. The second part of Utopia, set in Cuba, adds a new chapter to Green’s explorations of thorny political contradiction. Like Assata Shakur, the segment’s subject lives in Cuba as a fugitive. In the present, she’s engaged with Cuban hip-hop, but she remains tied to her past as a radical in America. “It’s about the last embers of revolution,” says Green.

One of Utopia’s movements examines the potential of forensice science in a manner quite different from pro-law enforcement US true crime television, showing how the smallest reinforcement can be regained from sites of mass tragedy. But the movie’s sojourn in China is in some ways its most vivid. There, Green takes an extended trip to the world’s largest shopping mall, in China. The subject matter is akin to dramas such as Jem Cohen’s Chain and Jia Zhangke’s The World (both from 2004), but this is a case of reality trumping fiction. “Almost every article I read about China and capitalism talked about how the world’s largest mall was there now,” says Green. “But nobody described it as a total failure. We were at the mall for ten days, and it was soul-killing. There’s something about a gigantic failed mall that is profoundly depressing.” Luckily, an encounter with a Teletubby who eventually removed its mask added some life to the experience.

The world’s largest shopping mall — at least for now: Green says it is slated to be bulldozed — may be grim, but it’s also richly symbolic when history is integrated to the picture. “Victor Gruen who essentially invented the [shopping] mall in the US in the 1950s was a socialist who came to America,” Green says, as “This Monkey’s Gone to Heaven” gives way to “I Feel Love” on the Phone Booth jukebox. “In turn the mall has gone to China, and the grounds of cultural revolution became the site of a government-funded bust of a mall. In a way, it’s the trajectory of the 20th century.”

Today, we tiptoe into the 21st century, with a new president and old-new ways of seeing and making movies. “A year ago, when I was looking at [Utopia], people were saying ‘Aren’t you going to change everything because of Obama?’,” Green remarks. “It felt like cotton candy hope. When [U.S. presidents] are the limits of your possibility, it’s pretty lame.” Truth: Green may have used utopia in his title, but perhaps it’s time to come up with some fresh formulations of hope as well.

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