November 26, 2010

Throughout human history, people have had giddy dreams and fantastic notions about what the future would bring. Today the future has become more of a threat than a promise—a knot of intractable problems looming menacingly on the horizon. With a powerful sense of poetry, Utopia in Four Movements uses the collective experience of cinema to explore the battered state of the utopian impulse at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

In this “live documentary,” filmmaker Sam Green cues images and narrates in person while musician Dave Cerf performs the soundtrack. From the establishment of a man-made language designed to end war and cultural conflict and the undying optimism of an American exile in Cuba, to the current economic boom in China and the desire to give the remains in mass graves a dignified burial, Green and Cerf sift through the history of the utopian impulse with audiences and search for insights about the way to build a vision of the future based on humankind’s noblest impulses.


Sam Green introduces a “live documentary”

The world is facing so many huge problems and challenges today, that utopia—as a way to illuminate possibilities, stir hope and the imagination—seems more important than ever. Utopia is for this project both a subject and a creative aspiration.

This “live documentary” form—I narrate the film in person and use Keynote to cue images while Dave Cerf mixes a soundtrack on his laptop—started out as just a way to put all the material together and screen it for people, sort of a live rough-cut. But over time, I’ve become quite fond of this as an approach.

The ‘live-ness’ seems especially fitting. At its heart, utopia is almost always about collectivity, about transcending the boundaries of our individual lives to connect with something larger. In this era, when there are so many forces pushing us into private and mediated experiences, the simple act of getting together with other people to talk, catch up, drink, and have a collective experience is a small utopian gesture.

This kind of live event is also a response to the crisis facing cinema today. Most of my students rarely consider going to see a film in a theater. They can see a film more cheaply at home as a DVD or for free on YouTube. It seems as if filmmakers either have to embrace the notion of people watching their work furtively, in stolen moments, on laptops and iPods, or create something that cannot be reduced to a digital file.

I love computers and the Internet, but seeing a movie in a theater with other people has an aura of immeasurable power and plenitude nothing can replace. Something of that collective experience that has been a utopian aspiration has also been a cinematic experience this last century or so, and this event is an attempt to approach both—to describe utopia and to create a kind of conversation of ideas with the audience.