UTOPIA IN FOUR MOVEMENTS: a live documentary


Love it or hate it, AVATAR has revived for many audiences the old-fashioned notion of movies as a social experience. Billed as a “live documentary,” Sam Green’s UTOPIA IN FOUR MOVEMENTS does effectively the same thing, on a smaller scale but with bigger ideas. Performed twice at the Sundance Film Festival this week as part of the New Frontier section, this was a charmingly homespun cross between a “benshi” silent-film show and a PowerPoint presentation: Green stood before the audience, narrating and cuing still and moving images while three musicians performed a score by co-director Dave Cerf.

As in his Oscar-nominated THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND (Sundance 2003, co-directed with Bill Siegel) Green sifts through the ruins of extinguished idealism. UTOPIA IN FOUR MOVEMENTS is as much a story of failure as it is one of hope. The word “utopia,” which originates in Sir Thomas More’s 1516 book about a fictional “perfect society,” comes from the Greek “not” and “place”: a place that by definition doesn’t exist. Accordingly, Green acknowledges the doomed nature of the utopian impulse, even as he argues for its importance.

He begins with the universal language of Esperanto: invented in the late 19th century by a Polish ophthalmologist who envisioned it as a one-world lingua franca, it’s spoken today by a relatively small contingent of diehards (some of whom Green finds at an Esperanto conference). He then shows us what a failed communist utopia and a failed capitalist utopia look like. In Havana, he visits an American radical living in exile, amid the stagnation of the long-ago Cuban revolution. In Guangdong, China, he finds the South China Mall, an enormous monument to conspicuous consumption that has remained surreally empty since it opened a few years ago. And in the final movement, he looks at the work of forensic anthropologists who dig through mass graves in a bid to identify human remains, a “radically hopeful” act in the face of the genocides of the 20th century.

In response to the big question he poses — how do you remain hopeful in an anti-utopian time? — Green doesn’t offer any conclusive answers: basically, you just have to, because what’s the alternative? Still, the film is inseparable from its novel presentation, which goes a long way. Every performance of UTOPIA IN FOUR MOVEMENTS is a collective experience, and a singular one, with the potential for human error and human connection. What it may lack in cohesiveness it more than makes up for with its own stubborn idealism, its attempt to create a fleeting moment of togetherness that can only be called utopian.