Review: ‘Utopia in Four Movements’

Pic falls several degrees short of the profound, life-altering experience that was clearly intended.

Like a skeptical lover, filmmaker Sam Green celebrates the dream of the perfect egalitarian society while pondering the ways that dream has derailed in his multimedia live-performance work, “Utopia in Four Movements.” With co-director and musician Dave Cerf, Green combines still and moving images with live music and spoken word to forge a cozy bond between performers and audience, but falls several degrees short of the profound, potentially life-altering experience that was clearly intended. A healthy fest tour is well under way, with many more stops to come.

Since he made “The Weather Underground,” his thoughtful examination of how a political movement can fracture and spin off tiny but potent fringe groups, Green has been interested in why initially worthy ideas on the left can go wrong, and how they can be retrieved. In this context, “Utopia” is notably less radical in its politics and form than Travis Wilkerson’s powerhouse works (“An Injury to One,” “Who Killed Cock Robin?”), which similarly combine spoken word, music and mixed-media images. Where Wilkerson issues a cri de coeur, Green and Co. deliver a plaintive lament laced with hope.

Green plays onstage narrator, delivering a gentle-toned text (strangely uncredited, but presumably self-written) while controlling the onscreen visual presentation via Keynote remote control (similar to PowerPoint), as musical trio the Quavers supports the visual and verbal flow with a quietly interlaced underscore. For “Utopia,” Green maintains his presence as a filmmaker by interspersing shorts throughout the show. By using the Keynote control to operate the show’s visual flow, Green can also be deemed an editor, cutting from image to image.

The opening section offers examples of current utopian activities, including the Utopian World Championships and supporters of Esperanto, whose rise and fall during the 20th century becomes a metaphor for how excitement over such projects tends to turn into disillusionment. (Pic doesn’t ignore the ways in which despots from Stalin to Hitler, no slouches as propagandists for their own utopian ideals, liquidated Esperanto supporters.)

Parts two and three contrast socialist and capitalist utopian desires. These range from a superficial look at the current state of things in Cuba (where indicted Black Panther member Nahanda Abiodun, having fled U.S. feds, lives in exile) to video of the South China Mall, a 7.1 million-square-foot consumer monstrosity that ranks as the world’s biggest. This is the disappointing end of the rainbow first set in motion by visionary Austrian architect Victor Gruen, who imagined the modern mall as a kind of antidote to ’50s-era suburban alienation.

Final section, titled “Elegy for the 20th Century,” jumps from the buried time capsule at the 1939 New York World’s Fair to forensic anthropologists examining mass graves in Bosnia — a practice Green terms “a response to hopes and dreams gone terribly wrong.” One may not be convinced by “Utopia’s” call for “dangerous” hope in the wake of recent history’s displays of human depravity and genocide; rather, his notion that we know better and may opt for “minor utopias” leaves a vague sense of a glass either half full or half empty.

Utopia in Four Movements

Production

Produced by Sam Green, Carrie Lozano, Jasmine Dellal, Zhou Xiaoli. Directed, edited by Sam Green, Dave Cerf.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W, Keynote projection, DV), Andy Black; music, the Quavers, Cerf, Matt McCormick, Tarentel; sound (stereo), Brent Hoffman, Huntley; re-recording mixer, Kadet Kuhne; archival research, Arwen Curry. Reviewed at Los Angeles Film Festival (Special Screenings), June 19, 2010. (Also in Sundance, San Francisco, Seattle film festivals.) Running time: 62 MIN.

With

Nahanda Abiodun. Narrator: Sam Green. (English, Esperanto, Cantonese, Serbo-Croatian dialogue)
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