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Sam Green conducts a utopian experiment

By Michael Fox
March 18, 2009 at

Green's screen: The Academy Award-nominated director puts himself in front of an audience in his new utopian-themed work-in-progress.

An early cut of Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s 2002 tour de force The Weather Underground included, among its feints and ploys, a splash of irreverent animation. That sequence was omitted from the completed, Academy Award-nominated documentary, which ultimately eschewed experimental techniques and editorializing for a more traditional approach. But everything is fair game for Green’s current nonfiction project, The Universal Language.

“In my work I’ve always had these two impulses,” Green says, “and I really love the combo of the two. It depends on the material which impulse is more dominant. With The Weather Underground, there was a historical responsibility. I had to be clear about more things, and that led me in a straight documentary direction. This one pulls in more of an experimental direction. The idea of making a film about utopia where you interview experts and give a history is really boring to me. I’m not trying to make a comprehensive history of utopia or an academic analysis of why this an anti-utopian time. I’m using the different stories to tease out, in more of an emotional way, ideas about hope and imagination of the future.”

The San Francisco filmmaker’s impatience with spoon-fed linear narrative and attraction to unconventional modes of storytelling dates to his 1997 debut, The Rainbow Man/John 3:16. That portrait of misguided media-obsessive “Rockin’ Rollen” Stewart also signaled Green’s fascination with individuals possessed of, shall we say, spectacular idealism. Stewart’s commitment, and that of the Weathermen, is one reason that Green’s movies are so immediate and involving.

“I aspire to engage people on a level that’s more philosophical,” Green says. “For me there’s always a tension between art and activism. Activism is usually about giving answers and art is about asking questions. It’s not that cut and dried, but generally, I’m more interested in the universal and deeper questions of who we are, and the broader cultural moment rather than a narrow focus on specific issues.”

One of the threads that comprise The Universal Language, and which gives the film its name, is the history of Esperanto — “a wonderful idea,” Green says, “that kind of runs up against the limitations of human nature.” Another focus is an American revolutionary who’s lived in Cuba for many years, beyond the reach of the FBI. A third strand considers the largest mall on Earth, now standing empty in China. “It’s a profound expression of Western notions of consumerism, and that in this day and age the only language left for talking about desire is market capitalism,” Green explains.

The Universal Language reflects Green’s chronic push-pull between optimism and reality. At the same time, his “weird essay film” seems to be doing more directing than reflecting.

“My process is never super-neat,” Green allows. “The ideal is you do research, preproduction, postproduction and then you’re done. I’ve never been able to work like that. For me, the post and the production get mixed up together and inform each other. I’ve been editing [this project] for a while, and I put together an assembly last summer. I haven’t really known how to make a movie out of it. There’s no well-trod formula with this film and I’m letting the material emerge on its own terms. PowerPoint demos started off as a way to talk about the film, but I like the form—it’s a kind of live version of the film.”

Green did a presentation at the Exploratorium in January, and he’s planning another, invitation-only work-in-progress show later this spring. In fact, citing Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain, which was both a live event and a film, and Bill Morrison’s Decasia, Green is playing with the idea of putting himself in the spotlight.

“A filmmaker has to accept that your film will be watched on an iPod or downloaded, or you have to create something that transcends it, that’s bigger than an iPod,” he asserts. “Hollywood is grappling with it; that’s why they’re doing 3-D. I’m struggling with the same thing, and doing something live in this day and age is a smart idea. It would be strategically smart and conceptually solid: it makes sense that [a film about utopian societies] would be this thing you would watch with other people and talk about afterward.”

Green has good social skills, and all those Weather Underground Q&As gave him plenty of experience with live audiences. But he isn’t Bill Maher, or Tim Robbins. And he knows it.

“Most documentary makers,” he says, “myself included, are shy people who in some ways use other people to say what they want to say. It sounds a little cynical but I think there’s something to it. It’s awkward to be in front of people. This is not something where I’m singing and dancing. It would be a hopefully entertaining lecture.”

Moviegoers who can’t wait until Green finishes The Universal Language late this year can keep an eye peeled for Utopia, Part 3: The World’s Largest Shopping Mall, his 13-minute piece that premiered at Sundance and is screening at Full Frame, Silver Docs, Ann Arbor and perhaps a certain festival closer to home. As for those who get wiggy when they hear the word “experimental” in a crowded theater, stop worrying.

“I definitely, definitely, definitely believe in meeting an audience where they are and not being inaccessible or precious about things,” Green declares. “I make work for people to see. I want a broad audience. There’s a fine line between being experimental and playing with form and communicating in different ways, and being inscrutable.”

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