‘Utopia’s’ last stand?
SFIFF 53’s Live & Onstage component thought globally and drafted locally on Sunday night with its third event. The Sundance Kabuki’s largest house was packed (with seemingly half the Bay Area film community in attendance) for San Francisco-based documentarian Sam Green and musician Dave Cerf’s live documentary Utopia in Four Movements, which we were assured beforehand never takes the exact same form twice. (During the Q&A afterward, the participants said that after months of performing in various forms at venues including the Sundance New Frontiers section, this night’s version felt the most “smooth.”)
After a brief spoken intro and a musical prologue by Brooklyn three-piece The Quavers, performing just below the screen (Cerf disappeared to work his end of the soundscape from auditorium rear), the piece commenced in earnest. Triggering projection of pictures both still and moving from via his laptop’s Keynote program, Green illustrated the concept of utopia as stretching from Sir Thomas More (who coined the term in 1516) to the World Utopia Championship (an annual writing contest) today.
But is utopian thought hopelessly out of sync with our current reality? “Are we living in an anti-utopia, or what?” Green asked. “What happened? The 20th century, that’s what happened.” A parade of wars and tragedies that have now well extended into the 21st make it “hard to believe that the future will be anything better than a worse version of the present.” He dwelled on one singular image as defining contemporary cynicism: Mikhail Gorbachev in a limo, thoughtfully driving past the crumbled Berlin Wall. So what’s wrong with that picture? It’s a Louis Vuitton ad. “Our societal imagination has been spent, and all that’s left is a $700 handbag,” Green cracked.
Characterizing utopia as something “fleeting…a place that does not exist,” he then went on to the four “movements” spotlighting various failed idealistic visions of society over the last century. First up was Esperanto, the “Universal Language” invented in the late 19th century by Pole L.L. Zamenhof that hoped to erase the barriers of understanding between mankind–a notion threatening enough to earn the active ire of Hitler and Stalin.
Next, “The Revolution” looked at the beleaguered legacy of great revolutionary movements and impulses in recent times. How would the progressive masses who toppled longstanding injustices in 1918 Russia or the U.S. Civil Rights marches a half-century later have felt if they’d had a crystal-ball view of the future? Green mused on his visits to Cuba, finding himself “completely flummoxed by the place,” its contradictions embodied in a U.S. expatriate met there—an African American woman who’d been involved in Black Power actions and in fleeing arrest wound up here, on an island freed from capitalism yet its own sort of prison.
The third section revealed surprisingly that the inventor of the enclosed modern shopping mall, Austrian-born Socialist Victor Gruen, saw it as a community-uniting answer to the isolating sprawl of post-WWII American suburbia. But as those ideals were consistently tossed in favor of strictly commercial interpretations, he finally disavowed his own concept. The ultimate ironic illustration of that failure is South China Mall in Dongguan–the world’s largest such project, housing everything from an Arc de Triomphe to Venetian gondolas to wandering Teletubbies. Everything but customers. Ninety nine percent empty of retail tenants, impractically located away from major transit hubs, it exists as the surreal worst-scenario riposte to “If you build it, they will come.”
Finally, “Elegy for the 20th Century” waxed more overtly philosophical. Could Zamenhof’s belief that people were “essentially good” survive knowledge of such recent horrors as the Khmer Rouge and civil war in former Yugoslavia—in which people killed not foreign combatants, but their own neighbors? “The idea that people could be noble on a large scale…is not something most of us believe in anymore,” Green considered. Now we “know better, and that’s both a wonderful and a terrible thing.” He marveled at the confidence that could bury a time capsule at the World’s Fair in 1939, not to be opened for 5,000 years. Does anyone now imagine our species, or even our planet, lasting that long?
Yet Utopia in Four Movements finds small causes for hope, if not for belief in the sweeping utopian belief systems of yore. It’s a unique multimedia construction, poetic yet casual in Green’s narrative commentary, stimulatingly rangy in the visual materials utilized, and very deft in the sonic input from Cerf and The Quavers.
This project started out being planned as a conventional documentary. While it undeniably has extra potency as a live event, here’s hoping the collaborators eventually create some kind of permanent record–their work here is simply too inventive and thought-provoking not to be disseminated beyond festival and gallery audiences. (Dennis Harvey)
‘Morning’ in San Francisco
Morning broke last night in the Sundance Kabuki’s House 1, for the first time anywhere, as the Festival hosted the world premiere of the new film by actor-turned writer/director Leland Orser, an unexpected, poignantly detailed and beautifully acted story of a couple lost in wild anguish over the recent death of their child. Featuring Orser and real-life-wife, actress Jeanne Trippelhorn, this was a labor of love that was lavished with love Monday night, as Film Society Executive Director Graham Leggat introduced the couple and producer Todd Traina to a moved and appreciative audience. The film’s painful subject matter ran close to home for the leads, who have a young son of their own, prompting Leggat to ask about the origin of a project that is neither "easy or straightforward." Orser said he developed the script after reading a New York Times article on the bleak stats for marriages after such a tragedy, bringing the results to his wife. "You’re always going to personalize it," he explained. "The involvement of my wife threw another emotional wrench into the works." Trippelhorn said she was deeply impressed with the script, but felt daunted by the thought of playing the role until a show of extremely personal artwork at the Whitney in New York changed her mind. Still, she said it was the hardest role she’s essayed. "But we did laugh a lot," she added. Orser confirmed that the almost necessary humor lifted the shoot (and, indeed, runs subtly through the film). Pointing to the emotionally wrenching scenes between Trippelhorn and Laura Linney (old school friends in real life), he noted, "Between takes, what you didn’t see were the conversations about fainting classes at Juilliard–very silly in between the very serious." Morning screens again at the Sundance Kabuki Wednesday, April 28, at 1:45 p.m. and again on Wednesday, May 5. (Robert Avila)
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