Happy? Sam Green's Utopia in Four Movements gave Sundance audiences a chance to ponder a century s highs and lows.

Sam Green's 'Utopia' at Sundance

Susan Gerhard January 31, 2010

Sundance was just days away when I found Sam Green deep in preparation for the live performance of his latest piece, Utopia in Four Movements. But even as he was ironing out the final kinks, he found a few minutes to walk me through the greatest dreams and worst nightmares of the 20th century, offering up the connections between an American exile in Cuba, the world’s largest shopping mall, which lies dormant in China, the history of Esperanto and the work of forensic anthropologists. In the years since The Weather Underground earned him an Oscar nomination, Green’s moved away from the traditional documentary format into more experimental narratives and offbeat shorts, such as lot 63, grave c, a melancholic look at the legacy of Altamont victim Meredith Hunter. His new work, a live-music infused, first-personal tour through a century of dashed hopes finds Green pushing boundaries of all sorts.

SF360: You’ve been working on this utopia idea for at least half a decade, dating back to a residency at Djerassi, I think. What was the original spark?

Sam Green: I never want to face the depressing truth, which is that movies take so long. I always want to say, ‘I’ve been working on this for several months.’ But I’ve been working on this five years, actually. Movies take a long time. This one took a long time to mull over the material and figure out what to do with it. It started when I was working on the Weather Underground movie. I was doing lots of research on the ’60s, reading a lot about that time, so I knew what I was talking about.

A few times I came across the reference, "the crisis of leisure time." It’s such a funny phrase. Turns out ‘the crisis of leisure time’ was something that sociologists were focusing on this in the ’50s, ’60s. There was so much automation that the problem they thought people would be facing in the future is what people would do with [all] their leisure time. They were thinking that right about now this would be a big issue. Forty years ago, people had such hope for the future–a kind of hope and imagination for the future. It just struck me that our hopes and ambitions and expectations are a lot lower these days. The inquiry for the piece is: What happened.

SF360: You explore this question in four separate pieces: Chinese industrialism, an American exile in Cuba, the story of Esperanto and another about forensic anthropology. Why four?

Green: In some ways, they’re all just stories that resonated for me for some reason or another. I’ve been mulling over these ideas for a while in a kind of intuitive way.

They’re not necessarily obvious connections: Esperanto, that’s pretty utopian in a clear way. The world’s largest shopping mall? Much less so. I was drawn to that and felt in a way the world’s largest shopping mall says something about who we are today and how we see the future. The job of the film became how to draw out the connection or the meaning.

The forensic anthropology segment can be seen as an elegy for the 20th century. There was a time capsule that was buried at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. It was this incredibly hopeful thing that’s supposed to be dug up in 5,000 years; the idea that people thought we’d be around for 5,000 years is sort of funny to begin with.

[But, as it turns out, just 60 years later, we are looking at digging for a different reason:] exhuming mass graves as a means of getting some justice.

SF360: At what point did you move this project from traditional documentary to live performance?

Green: I always wanted to make something that was less PBS documentary style. With Weather Underground, I had intended to make something that was a lot more of an art movie. My original idea was to just have audio from the people in the Weather Underground over only archival images. Over time, I started to feel this responsibility in dealing with history, to make it clear. So it got more straightforward in terms of form over time. With this project, I’m really happy to go back to a more experimental direction. My original idea was to put these four pieces together and never explain what the connection was, sort of like Fast, Cheap & out of Control. But a couple years ago, I put together a rough cut and people said, ‘I have no idea what this is.’ I said, OK, that’s not gonna work. I realized it was going to have to become an essay film. The thing that would make sense to any degree was my saying how these fit together. I’d never been in any movie of my own. First-person narration I wasn’t very comfortable with. I started doing a PowerPoint-style presentation about the project as a way to sort of think it through, out loud. At a certain point, I realized I’m much more open to seeing a lecture than listening to a long voiceover movie. Seeing someone in person is different than listening to them yak endlessly. I started to feel this idea of doing a live narration; all the dynamics are different.

SF360: I saw version at the Exploratorium a little while ago; how has it changed since then?

Green: I was reading a script then. Now I’ve memorized it and am more performative. We have live music that goes with it. It’s a lot tighter.

SF360: Let’s go back to the mall in China. What were your expectations went you went there?

Green: I was just in the beginning of this project, just sort of researching things. I felt like part of the movie in some ways is about capitalism. I was looking into modern expressions of capitalism. China at the moment, there’s this love affair with capitalism. Me and Carrie Lozano went on this research trip. I had read lots of articles on China and capitalism , and a lot of them mentioned that the world’s largest shopping mall was in China. We went to the mall expecting it to be a big success. We got there and it was puzzling. What the hell? No one would explain. They had an odd reluctance to talk about it. I loved the idea of the world’s largest shopping being a complete bust. If you made a fiction film and put that in a fiction film, people would say that’s a heavy-handed, ham-fisted metaphor. But it’s documentary: It’s real, and I really liked that. In not necessarily a literal or didactic way, that story of ‘the world’s largest shopping mall’ [explains so much]. The guy who invented ‘the mall,’ he was a socialist, and the mall was supposed to be a community, its origins in Austrian socialist society until now. It says a lot about the 20th century, where we started and where we ended up–not in a didactic way but in an emotional way.

SF360: What about the Cuba segment? Where did this story come from?

Green: It’s complicated. I don’t want to be one dimensional. I don’t want to be a sycophantic leftist who says Cuba is great or the person who says oh, just put it in the dustbin of history, there’s nothing there. It’s complicated and there’s much about the spirit of Cuba that’s compelling and valuable. But at the same time, I wouldn’t want to live there and many other people don’t and there’s a lot that’s problematic. My take on it is not simple, but trying to tease out what it represents. To me, Cuba is the last ember of that idea of the revolution, the idea of revolution as a way to make a perfect world. For the most part people have given up on that. There are still small embers of that. The piece is, I hope, a clear-eyed look at that, an attempt to see what that was, and what if anything is valuable about that.

SF360: And Esperanto?

Green: Esperanto is in a way a mirror of the 20th century. It was created in 1887. People started learning it in the 20th century. There were a lot of people who spoke it; people believed it could work. It wasn’t a preposterous idea. By the end, it was a kooky thing, a William Shatner movie. The arc of the story is that it that there was a flowering of utopian ideas at beginning of 20th century; by the end, it had waned. Esperanto and socialism mirror each other.

SF360: The forensic anthropology segment is something different altogether.

Green: My friend Elisabeth Subrin who’s a video maker in New York; she’s read a book by Michael Ondaatje about a forensic anthropoplogist; she told me about it and I was very taken with the idea. I had never heard about forensic anthropology and that, too, felt like, to me, a very profound expression of where we are at in the world, and how our history lingers with us. It just felt very metaphorically significant. Something about forensic anthropology’s exhuming mass graves, figuring out who’s there, making some justice happen, just felt like a very appropriate expression of the world at the end of the 20th century. All these stories are just things that resonated on a kind of intuitive emotional level….

Don’t get me wrong: The last thing I want to be is a scold, or the bummer guy, who’s saying we’re not utopian anymore. I do feel like there is always a utopian impulse that peeks out here and there. My feeling is that on a societal level today, there’s a lot less of that. Our options seem to have narrowed. Very few people can think of what we have beyond what we have today. We’ll be lucky if we get health care. You still have to pay a bunch of money. Our ambitions have gotten way lower. What about the idea that everyone could have a decent standard of living? All that’s possible, we just don’t consider that an option. With the crisis of leisure time, people really thought that technology was going to make our lives easier. At this point in time, I can’t imagine anyone thinking that. Each thing that comes up, it’s cool but does the cell phone make your life any easier? Hell no! We all work a lot more for a lot less. At this point of time, I can’t imagine anyone saying technology is going to bring any kind of utopia around. People thinking genetic modification is going to lead to good stuff: You’re crazy. Do you think decoding the genome is going to lead to anthing other than insurance companies deciding who pays more? Come on….

SF360: [Asked post-festival] How did the performances go?

Green: I thought that the Sundance screenings went really well. We had worked really hard right up to the end. We met the band a few days before in Park City and spent 72 hours in a condo putting together the live music. By the time the shows rolled around, i was really nervous. I’m not a real performer, so it’s scary to get up there before an audience and do this piece. [But] I didn’t make any huge mistakes and the audience laughed in the right spots, and seemed engaged. And very importantly, the music was great, I thought. The music was put together by Todd Griffin with Catherine McRae and Dennis Cronin. They made great sounds. Also, in the past few months, I had worked a lot on the piece with a local theater director named David Ford, who is really good at what he does. That was a huge help in terms of making the writing really tight and also he gave me lots of good feedback about performing.

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